First(ish) World problems

On our recent trip to Mozambique, we met a lot of expats who live in other countries in southern Africa, including Mozambique and Malawi, and it made us realize, again, how (relatively) easy we have it living in Joburg. When it comes down to it, living here is a pretty cushy developing world experience. Most things work. We have electricity and hot water and fancy shopping malls. There are gyms and knitting stores and nice restaurants. And although Joburg can be irritating and slow and backwards, the annoyances we face are nothing compared to those faced by people living in less developed countries or in more rustic areas. For example, we met a Canadian woman on Ilha who lives in Pemba, in northern Mozambique, and she was telling us how the only fresh produce she can find in the entire city are beat up tomatoes, onions, and an assortment of mixed greens that look like weeds.

I would die.

Well, no, I wouldn’t, because I have lived in places like that before (see, e.g., Cuba, 2004), and it was actually fine, because you can get used to anything, and I ate a lot of ice cream, but man, I devoured vegetables like they were going out of style for weeks after I got back to the US.

Map courtesy of
We’re in the orange, hooray! (Map courtesy of

I have thought and written about this before. A couple years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I wrote this post about all of the annoying little things that conspire to make daily life in Sao Paulo difficult. Joburg is similar; actually, I’d say Joburg is more developed than Sao Paulo in a lot of key ways. Mostly, life here is easy. We have a car so we don’t have to take the crappy (and dangerous) public transport, we eat at good restaurants, there’s plenty of fresh produce, the grocery store stocks fancy products like soy milk and pre-made curry paste, our power only goes out occasionally, and we even have cable and wireless internet.

But life here is not perfect. Things go wrong more frequently than they do back home in the States. For example, yesterday I spent my entire day – literally, from 8 am to almost 5 pm – doing errands that in the US would have taken me half the time to accomplish — except This is Africa.

First, I had to go to the post office to pick up a package. When I got to the window and presented my package notification slip, the woman asked for ID. I showed her my driver’s license and she said she needed my passport, or at least my passport number. I had neither, so I tried to call Al to get my passport number, but my phone was out of credit AND out of data, so I couldn’t email him either. The post office employee and I argued back and forth about whether or not my passport was necessary to pick up a package in my name, given that I had other forms of ID and my passport number was not in their system anyway, and the discussion ended with her avoiding eye contact and telling me to come back with my passport. The end. Next I went to the Vodacom shop to buy more credit on my phone – which, by the way, you can only purchase based on monetary value rather than on the number of minutes purchased, which makes NO SENSE, Vodacom – but the shop was closed. Then I went to the grocery store to buy some cleaning stuff, and the woman charged me for a bag, which I didn’t need since I had brought my own bag, and in order to void the approximately $.04 charge, she needed to call a manager, but the manager didn’t come, so after five minutes of the cashier trying to flag down a manager, I said forget it, just charge me for the bag, and then she tried to give me the bag but she had already loaded my stuff into the bag I brought and UGH I JUST WANTED TO SLAP EVERYONE IN THE FACE. Then I went to the doctor’s office, and the doctor was running half an hour late, because, of course. Then I came home to do the piles of laundry we had accumulated over vacation, and the washer started spewing water and soap all over the kitchen floor, so I called the plumber. The plumber came and could not fix the washer. Then, I went back to the post office with my passport and waited in a half-hour line. When I finally reached the window, not one but TWO separate people decided to walk up to the window and argue with the employee about various things. By this time it was 4:30 PM, and I still had to go to the pharmacy. When I got home at five, exhausted and annoyed and with a wet kitchen floor, I felt annoyed at how wasteful and inefficient my day had been, despite my best efforts to get things done quickly. I had barely had time to write a blog post, let alone work on other writing projects, and for what? (And our washer’s still broken, by the way.)

But this is what you sign on for when you come to live in a developing country, and the annoyances in my day are so minor compared to what people living in, say, the bush in Mpumalanga put up with day to day, it seems silly to complain. Sure, in general, life in a developing country can be more difficult, annoying, challenging, and slow than life in the cushy developed world – but that doesn’t mean it’s worse, necessarily. There are drawbacks and benefits to living in a place like South Africa. Drawbacks include things not working, power outages, slow bureaucracies, inefficiencies, and the lack of certain creature comforts. Benefits include a much lower cost of living, simplicity, experiencing a different culture, and learning patience.

I am still working on that last one.

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