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Hope in a Sea of Gray

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Message Jan Baumgartner
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Cape Town, even in winter, is an exuberance of color and energy. It has more than its share of natural riches in the beauty of sea and sand and mountains. It bursts with fragrant flowers and flowering trees. An artist's delight in washes of azure, turquoise and teal, and the chalky white of beach and cloud. And bright sunshine yellow. Embellished with broad strokes of red, orange and ochre; quieted with touches of pink and lavender, heathered mauve. All in the forms of wildflowers and fynbos. Scrub and oak. Miles of towering mountains and pristine beaches.

Outside of Cape Town and just a few kilometers away lay the rich, fertile Winelands. The fecundity of the region is apparent in the vast stretches of vineyards, fruit orchards and olive groves. There is a depth of color to this land. Shades become heavier, richer, perhaps due to the weight of so much fruit. There is a concentration to the color of the Winelands, a tonal difference that may be attributed to land shaded by mountains as opposed to the sun's reflection off the sea.

It is what lies between where color fades. Where the lavish landscapes of dense color begin to mute, eventually bleeding to gray. They say that gray is a color. Here, I would beg to disagree. Here, I would say it is more of a feeling. A sense. A cloudiness of conscience until the color of reality sets in. Only then does the gray become color and blindly clear. This is a line of earth that is sketched and scribbled in lead pencil gray. The box of color, for the most part, was not availed here. What I saw was a wash of gray mostly born from discarded scrap metal.

It is a strong dose of reality when one sees the townships for the first time - witnesses the townships - the shanties and slums abutting Cape Town. In either direction, you leave behind worlds of abundance and privilege only to see a very different reality, what lives in between those pockets. Built on soft ground, unstable dunes, and often flooded in downpours, the shanty towns or squatters camps, stretch for miles along the highway that connects the beautiful city on the sea to the valleys of wine. Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children live in "houses" that are nothing more than discarded materials; corrugated steel, twisted sheet metal, cardboard boxes and plastic garbage bags that act as makeshift barriers against the rain and cold. The areas I saw were mainly without electricity or water. Some of the townships have limited power and shared toilet facilities, but the shanties and camps that I regularly passed had no basic services. Mile after mile was nothing more than ramshackle construction, what looked like the forts and tents that children erect at play and with nothing more than found objects lying around yards and streets.

But this is not play. Within these cardboard walls are families. Beneath the roofs of rusted sheet metal are human beings. Surely, there is color inside, unseen. But from the outside, and in every sense of the meaning, these camps are a sobering dose of human suffering and the profound dichotomy of the have's and have not's.

I have flown over the slums of Nairobi and seen the impoverished shanty towns deep in the Kenyan countryside. But witnessing the shanties on the fringes of Cape Town, on many occasions and closer yet, I felt a sense of hopelessness. Why cannot we, the collective we, find answers and solutions for so many? I know it is complex. I know there are more dimensions and facets of poverty than I can possibly comprehend. But how can we allow so many to live cold and hungry, endangered by disease, the elements, and other desperate human beings? The gray is palpable.

Each time I drove past I felt a wave of emotion: shame, guilt, sorrow, profound sadness, compassion, frustration, ignorance and, deep gratitude for all I have. It is one of those things that makes no sense in this world and has not since the beginning of time. How, I wondered, did so many desperate people find the strength to go on? What made thousands, millions of people living in varying degrees of poverty, get up each day and face a world that appeared to offer so little hope? It made me wonder about the human spirit, the levels of "living," what I thought of as survival, the will to live, and hope.

I thought of my own profound losses, the losses of my father, close friends, my husband, all while I was relatively young, and I wondered what it was that gave us the motivation to go on. There are many days when I struggle to find meaning, to find reason to hope. But in witnessing the townships and camps, I realized that my personal losses, no matter how profound, were nothing compared to the stretch of concentrated suffering before me. I have never known how it feels to be hungry and cold, in addition to losing those I love. If nothing more, and selfishly, this area of gray made certain things in life all the clearer.

I saw the highway flanked with children playing along the narrow strips of sandy soil and scrub grasses. They were playing soccer, dragging sticks, hanging out with friends. As the cars sped by, these children and young adults of the shanties seemed to relish the fresh air, the feel of the soil beneath their bare feet. Many were laughing. Other inhabitants of the camps were heading home after a long day of labor. Exhaustion was imprinted on their faces, but one last effort had to be made in crossing the four lanes of traffic, heading home. On the older faces, I saw fewer smiles.

As I drove by the last stretch of this shanty town, something jumped out from the colorless line. At the very end of the camp was one particularly run down shack. It is hard to imagine that one shack from another, all constructed of ripped cardboard, rusted metal and torn plastic, could look even worse than the next. But this last house did, until I realized what had caught my eye. This house of many angles, but none being at ninety degrees, lopsided, falling apart, and seemingly ready to collapse had a solid wood door. And not just any door. This shack built between a few gnarled trees and abutting the highway had a painted door. Somehow, the owner of this shack had gotten a hold of leftover paint. Red paint. It was carried home and painted, rather neatly too, across the face of the withered wood door. What happened that day, the day of the painted door, was most extraordinary.

Survival is often nothing more than instinct. During the worst of times, it is what gets us up, moving, fed and watered, and back to sleep. It is instinctual to all living things. Some are better at it than others. And some don't make it no matter how hard they try. The will to live, in my eyes, is something different. It is experienced by beings of intellect and reason. It is a kick-start that says "I must go on, I will go on," no matter how horrific the circumstance might be. It is more than mere survival - of finding food and shelter and warmth. It is a conscious effort, the will of mind, body and spirit that says, "I will live," regardless of what it takes.

However, if on a particularly promising day, say if one finds a discarded bucket of bright red paint, then the color of hope emerges. Like a mysterious flower, hope blooms out of the direst of circumstances. Hope is what is born after a night of cold and hunger, a night of loneliness and pain, when you wish for nothing more than permanent sleep. It is the morning after the longest night when you wake up with an unexpected lightness of being. It is that day when you tell your children they will have more than this; their lives will be better. And most important, you will see to it. It is the morning when you look at a lopsided front door, find a bucket of red paint and say, "I think I might like a bright red door. A bright red door would look beautiful."

Hope is the cherry on the sundae. Even when there is no sundae. It is the tiny, sweet thing we save for last. When we've gotten through the surviving, the will to live, and finally, made our way to the sweet taste of the cherry.

This day, that is what emerged from the sketch of lead pencil gray. From the lopsided shack at the end of the shanty on the side of the highway.

Hope is the bright red door.
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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a grant (more...)

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