The frustration caught in his eyes ricocheted off the small tent’s walls, and the potency of his gaze struck me to the core, as I am sure it did many of the other gathered individuals. The young Zimbabwean glanced around uneasily, searching faces for a glimmer of understanding, but as the previous night’s cold rain seeped through our pants, despair saturated our spirits. Huddled in this tent were representatives of the United Nations and the Cape Town City Council, a group of Zimbabwean refugees, a university student, and myself. Individual grievances and opinions were plentiful, yet we had not even approached a solution to the issues being addressed. Sitting amidst this collection of people brought together by a shared conflict but utterly split in their perception and experience of it, I found myself sympathizing with the young man’s frustration. Even as an outsider not directly involved in the situation, or perhaps because of this fact, I was able to identify the true obstacle: he was not addressing a circle of listeners, but rather a gathering of inherently contrasting points of view.
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I had arrived at Blue Waters Refugee Camp that morning with Catherine, a student from the University of Cape Town. The impromptu patchwork of tents along a desolate stretch of the cold Atlantic coastline housed families who had fallen victim to the ongoing xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Catherine and I had intended to spend another day reading and playing with the children, and after being waved through the security gates by the police who now recognized us, we were greeted with a multitude of grateful smiles and a chorus of salutations. Then we noticed a group of men leaning sullenly against a truck full of old blankets and torn clothes. These displaced Zimbabweans had been moved to Blue Waters Camp that morning and were simply refusing to settle into their new place of residence.
Our mission for the day immediately changed. We were soon crammed into the only empty tent left in the camp, listening to the Zimbabweans explain their predicament. Like thousands of others, they had fled their home and the political terror and economic crisis that plagued their country – the same country my parents call home. They had been lucky enough to find work in Cape Town but were now drowning in the horrifying wave of xenophobia that had washed across most of South Africa. After months of working long and hard hours, barely eating on the few Rand they were paid, they had been moved to Blue Waters Camp. Their dilemma was clear: this camp was a forty-minute drive from their work in Cape Town. They did not own cars. They had no money to pay for the bus. And they could not put their lives in danger by living among the locals in Cape Town. They would not unpack because they simply could not survive this far away.
In the dark tent, the UN representative finally broke the heavy silence, suggesting what to him seemed like the most obvious and simple solution to an extremely trivial problem. There was a taxi stop only one kilometer away. It would mean a very short walk and a minimal fee, a relatively minor inconvenience. The six Zimbabweans shook their heads. No. This was not a trivial problem. And this was certainly not a valid solution.
“You see, the problem is that we have a different understanding of what one kilometer means,” the spokesman explained. “To you it is nothing. You are always safe, driving in your car. But you do not know how dark it is when we return from work at night. You have not seen what can happen in this darkness. One kilometer is not a short distance when you cannot walk it in safety.”
The truth of these words still rings in my ears. This man wholly grasped the essence of his tribulations. Understanding is a thoroughly relative phenomenon. I will continue to view one kilometer as it is defined by my own life and circumstances, but I will never again assume that this distance is a constant. Having glimpsed the world in such completely different dimensions, my daily life is changed by the realization that while we all live in the same universe, our perceptions of it are circumscribed by the measurements of our own experience.
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