Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Paranoia versus Caution

Even before I moved to Johannesburg, people began bombarding me with horror stories and safety advice.

The stories and advice have not abated in the 1.5 months I’ve been here.  If anything, they’ve increased.  My ZA friends and colleagues constantly tell me to be careful, usually illustrating their points with terribly dramatic narratives.

“Don’t walk alone” and a story about gang rape.

“Don’t stop at traffic lights at night” and a story of car hijacking statistics.

“Don’t stop driving if a police car wants you to pull over in a deserted area.  Just keep going” and a story of men pretending to be police.

“Don’t carry your camera where people can see it” and a story about mugging.

All these stories are starting to affect me.  I’ve been careful and cautious since arriving, but now I’m starting to get paranoid.

It frightens me to walk 3 blocks from the coffee shop to my house once it gets dark.

It frightens me to pause while driving at night.

This constant fear feels like a creature that’s living in my chest.  He squeezes my lungs to make it hard to breathe and crawls through my veins whenever I’m unsure of my situation.  Sometimes he dances in my stomach so that I feel nauseous.

Needless to say, I don’t like him.

There’s a difference between being cautious and being paranoid.

People keep citing news stories to me, but it seems like the news here play up incidents as much as possible.  Of course, the media always wants to sensationalize crime, but in ZA it goes deeper than that.  Creating a society of fear allows politicians and business executives to justify security measures and other laws that are harder to pass when people fundamentally trust each other.

Furthermore, being scared all the time actually inhibits your abilities to react.  Years ago I read The Gift of Fear (1997) by Gavin de Becker.  He emphasized the importance between real fear and perceived fear: fear is a gift from your intuition that helps you get out of bad situations.  My paranoia is harming my self-awareness, not aiding my security.

I am determined to flush out this fear creature from my body.  I refuse to spend my six months here afraid of the dark, strangers, or anything else slightly, possibly dangerous.

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