We spent a week sleeping in a mud hut, sharing our days with backpackers, wanderers and the local Xhosa people whose villages dotted the landscape around us. We had hoped to introduce our boys to an Africa that we both know quite well - one where rural poverty and traditional lifestyles merge with our modern one. It is a world where mud huts have solar panels to charge cell phones, but women and girls still walk long distances carrying water and firewood on their heads. Our boys spent their mornings doing school work and the afternoons quickly became time to play with the local boys who would turn up every day after school, to see what we were up to. The local children spoke only Xhosa and ours spoke only English (save for a few shared words like "soccer") but the language of play is a powerful one that overrides any spoken language. Afternoons would turn in to hours-long games of tag, where none of them could recall or pronounce each other's names so instead they all called each other "friend". Our boys would disappear from sight, part of a pack that ran past us from time to time in a blur of boy, laughter and bare feet. The local kids had no toys to speak of and so the few things that we had with us, became hotly sought after items of interest. It was humbling to see how well children who are used to have nothing share toys, each took his turn and waited patiently for another.
Two of the most common fears of middle class, suburban parents is that ones child might be run over by a car or abducted by a stranger. It was strange and amazing to be in a pace where neither posed a problem - there were no cars and to the local kids, there were no strangers in the village of their ancestors. Our boys ran wild and free with them well in to dusk each night. It was a beautiful thing to see the joy in their friendship and the freedom that this place gave to us all. There is a lyrical quality to rural poverty and one can quite easily romanticize a life without cars, lived amongst family, with gardens filled with maize and with chickens wandering in and out of mud hut homes. It is beautiful and peaceful, but the realities are harsh. Each hut has its own vegetable garden, since there is neither a shop, nor money to spend in it. Life is simple but there is no work, which means no money beyond limited government support and income generated by family members working in cities.
Bulungula Lodge operates off the grid, with a minimal carbon footprint. It sits on an extraordinary piece of pristine and wild coastline in what was once called the Transkei in South Africa. Green hills roll towards the sea along miles and miles of coastline, all of them dotted with huts, livestock and vegetable gardens. We travelled to Bulungula for its remote beauty and immersion in the local community, who recently acquired 100% ownership of the lodge. With its solar power, composting toilets and aquifer fed water supply, we lived off the grid and with minimal impact. Our impact lay in the money we our stay brought to a community with no other source of income. What began 10 years ago as a backpackers lodge has grown in to a program of social upliftment (the Bulungula Incubator), providing work, health services and education for the community around the lodge. As always what we gained was as much or more than we gave and the lessons our boys learned of a common humanity, no matter our skin color or income, are ones that once learned are never lost. We will be back.