The Divergence of African Hospitatlity

By Madison Waggoner

After spending the past few weeks diving into every aspect of life in South Africa, I was perplexed by the strong contrast between my experiences in a small, impoverished village and a luxury lodge experience. Before coming to South Africa, I had believed that the accommodations surrounding an experience would play a huge role in whether or not I would enjoy the experience and learn from it, but I was proven wrong very quickly.

During the homestays, myself and three other students had the opportunity to stay with a family in Domboni, a small village nestled in HaMaKuya. We immersed ourselves in their way of life as much as we could. From sleeping on the concrete floor in a thatched hut to helping kill a chicken for dinner to embracing the fact that we looked like a fish out of water trying to learn their traditional dances; we spent every waking moment connecting with these amazing people. Hearing the realities of the daily lives in this village made the concerning statistics we learned previously come alive in a heartbreaking way. Domboni only has two water taps in the entire village. One of the taps gets water once a week on Wednesday, and the other is supposed to be filled every other week but is rarely consistent. All of the water from the first tap is completely gone by Friday. We asked a 16 year old girl named MaRangie what she would do with access to more water. She smiled as she explained how she would be able to finally do laundry and bathe. I could not believe the humility of the response she had given. I very quickly learned the people of Domboni are so much more than their circumstances. Everyone we met in the village had an incredible work ethic and a great motivation to better themselves. They taught me the value of building strong relationships by allowing me to see a glimpse of how tight knit their community is. I felt so welcomed in this place. I left feeling empowered and hopeful for the future of this village.

After the incredible experience I had in Domboni, our next stop was a luxury safari lodge. Every feeling and experience I had during my stay in this lodge starkly contrasted my time in Domboni. The moment we pulled through the gates of the lodge I had an incredibly uncomfortable feeling come over me that I just could not shake. The rangers who greeted us at the gate were white, something we had not seen in the two weeks prior. We drove for a few minutes to the lodging facilities through the private game reserve and I struggled to accept the setting of the lodge compared to the homestays we had just returned from. Two men were waiting for our arrival with beautiful fruity drinks in hand to distribute the second we stepped out of the vehicles. A huge swimming pool full of glistening, clear water was located in the center of the lodge, overlooking a watering hole to view wildlife while lounging around. A feeling of guilt crept over me knowing that just a short distance down the road villagers struggled to find enough water to drink or bathe in, let alone swim. The white employees had the management positions, and interacted with the guests, while the native African people held jobs as housekeepers, cooks, and butlers. The robotic and rehearsed happiness expressed by these laborers people was beyond disheartening. The decor of the lodge felt staged to match a traditional American or European assumption of how a safari lodge should be decorated, with no connection to the local culture. Some of the information told to us by the jeep jockeys was completely untrue, but told in a way that tourists would believe and not question. Everything was embellished to provide a so-called cultural experience, without a basis in reality to match the picture-perfect beliefs that many white tourists undoubtedly come with. It was sickening to me that so many people come here for the wildlife, but fail to recognize the intense struggles going on just next door. I left this place with feelings of guilt and frustration at the ignorance of not just the tourists but the people involved in creating the facade of the lodge.

After this experience I’m left feeling so disheartened that many tourists, including those with the intention of discovering what South African culture and life is like, leave with such a false impressions. I would have never guessed how the unforgettable emotions I felt stemmed from spending time in a community that had nothing but themselves to offer. It’s an odd feeling to have the opportunity to stay in such a luxury location with so many amenities and yet feel so unhappy. I am thankful for the people of Domboni for an incredible personal reality check and deeper understanding of their way of life, while also providing me with true insight into the struggles of real South Africans.

Natalie Miller