South Africa: Living in a “Sketchy” Country

In my 15-year old daughter’s world, “sketchy” is the new word of the day.

It is “sketchy” to park at a Shell gas station and climb up a short grass embankment to get to the car dealership, rather than park right out front which would have taken an extra 10 minutes of sitting in traffic.

It is “sketchy” to have to sit outside the front entrance of the school to wait 15 minutes for your mother to pick you up and deal with the scary possibility of a teacher walking by and asking what you’re doing there.

It is “sketchy” to have to talk to practically anyone you don’t already know.

Sketchy is a catchall label for any situation that might be uncomfortable in the slightest. What would she have made of having to walk to school 5 miles every day, barefoot in the snow?

Okay, so that didn’t actually happen. But what DID happen is this: I was about her age, and a group of friends and I were spending a rare hot German summer day at the lake 45 minutes outside of town. Someone’s parents dropped us off, or we took a bus, I can’t remember. In any case, as these things go, our group quickly tired of the lake and it was decided that we would hitchhike back to town instead of waiting for the next bus hours later. Or rather, that is what everyone else decided. I, however, had been threatened within an inch of my life to never ever hitchhike. If there was something I was even more afraid of than being kidnapped and possibly dismembered by a pervert, it was having to face the wrath of my mother if she found out I had broken the hitchhiking taboo. So I did the only thing I could think of doing. I watched my friends take off, and then I plopped down on the bench at the bus stop and proceeded to twiddle my thumbs for several hours. Using a payphone to call my mother to pick me up was out of the question. I knew she was busy working. Sitting at that bus stop all by myself in the midday heat with nothing to do, now that was sketchy.

That feeling of guilt that I get when I am late and know my daughter is waiting at the school for me, that feeling that causes me to rush and perhaps speed a little and curse at all the red lights in between? I’m sure my mother never ever had that feeling inside of her. And just think: In her fingers my daughter in the year 2018 is holding more computing power than fit into an entire building when I was her age. She can bring up a book to read, a movie to watch, at least 50 different games to play, she can access her homework, she can communicate with pretty much everyone in her universe… She can try to fit all of those things into the 15 minutes she is sitting there, and yet she finds this unbearably “sketchy.”

Hearing my daughter recount her plight with sketchy encounters makes me think of our life in South Africa. A large portion of what happened to me while living there can be defined as sketchy.

Driving into the township of Alexandra to take home the baseball coach I had just met, upon realizing he had walked for an hour to come to my part of town and feeling ashamed to make him walk all the way back, even though I had been warned urgently to never ever drive into Alexandra: Super sketchy!

Driving into the countryside and stopping for an urgent pit stop for the boys within sight of a warning sign with the words “Hijacking Hotspot” on it: More than a bit sketchy!

Rolling into a tiny town in Namibia at sunset on an auxiliary spare wheel that was itself losing air and asking around for a repair shop, and then arriving at  a junkyard filled with an assortment of very strange characters waiting for their own car repairs: Sketchy sketchy sketchy!

By my daughter’s definition, everything in South Africa qualified as sketchy, because nothing was ever straightforward or convenient. And yet I count the years in South Africa as among the happiest in my life, precisely because they were so rich and full of adventure. You could never quite predict how your day was going to go, and chances were you’d land in a sketchy place full of sketchy people along the way.

It was glorious.

A sketchy life is a life worth living.

Sketchy situation in Africa: 'smash 'n grab bricks at an intersection
An actual hijacking hotspot in Johannesburg as evidenced by piles of leftover smash-n-grab bricks from the night before.
Sketchy situation in Africa: Junkyard in Namibia
Out of our four children, precisely one has the ability, like me, to find joy in sketchy situations
Sketchy situation in Africa: Junkyard in Namibia
A sketchy junkyard in the middle of nowhere in a small Namibian town saved us from having to pitch our tent among the lions that night

Related