Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


[Updated below]

In light of recent events, I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal safety and the dumb choices I often make.

Back when I was in high school, my dad dropped me off at a party with these words: “Beth, I’ve done the best I can with you and taught you everything I know.  If you get yourself if in bad situation, it’s probably your own fault.”

At the time, I was a little taken aback by his statement.  Ten years later, though, I finally appreciate how awesome my dad is!

Lots of women are taught to be dependent – financially, physically, emotionally.  My parents, however, taught me that my life is 100% my own, yet also gave me the education and support necessary to cultivate my sense of self.

That being said, they’d probably be appalled at the stupid things I do.

Which they’re now going to find out about via my blog.

They’re probably already cringing.

First, if I’m going to take my own advice from yesterday’s post, I need to stop driving around Joburg during the wee hours of the morning with my windows down and music blaring.  On the one hand, I’ve probably woken up half the people in my neighbourhood.  On the other side, it’s stupid behaviour.  I love driving in the city at night when the roads are empty and blasting through red lights (perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, behaviour here) – but I need to start keeping my windows up.

Second lesson: Durban is not like the community in which I grew up.  It’s the third largest city in South Africa.  Consequently, I need to stop taking rides from strangers.

The first time I visited Durban in September, it was raining and a police officer stopped outside Wilson’s Wharf to offer my friend and me a ride to our hostel.  My friend hesitated but I jumped right in.

Last weekend I visited the Durban a second time.  Once again, someone offered my friend (a different one this time) and me a ride while we walked away from Wilson’s Wharf.

The funny thing is that when I saw the guy drive by us and smile, I almost flipped him off.  My friend and I had put up with two days of men honking and catcalling, mostly due to her long blonde hair and short skirt – but I didn’t have the energy to react belligerently so I smiled back instead.

The man must’ve pulled a U-turn behind us because he drove by again and asked if we wanted a ride.  Our taxi was late, but I knew we were only a 10-15 minute drive to the train station.  I accepted, even though I could tell my friend was not happy.

I got in the front seat and she got in the back.  I didn’t know how to communicate with her not to put on her seatbelt and to keep her bag ready in case I decided we needed to jump out of the car, but “luckily” she was so uneasy that she didn’t need my safety advice.

The man drove us right to the train station and I got his number and told him I’d call if we were ever back in Durban so he could take us out for Bunny Chow.  Obviously a complete lie, but in a situation like that I feel like it’s less likely to turn out bad if you make plans for the future.  Manipulative, selfish, and conniving?  Absolutely.  Not that I’m proud of my behaviour, but that’s what I did.

After we got on our train, my friend could no longer contain her amazement that I was so nonchalant about getting in a car with a stranger.  Then I told her some more of my stories to show that even though I’m nice and polite, I’m not a pushover.

I told her about visiting Zambia shortly before Christmas.  I was only there for a few days, but one evening I drove around Livingstone with a local guy I met, visiting the various bars and letting him buy me a couple drinks.  As he dropped me back at my hostel, he leaned over to kiss me but I ducked out of his arms and spun out the car.  From outside, I blew him a kiss and he said, incredulous, “Are you seriously doing this?”

“Yes!” I cackled with laughter as I ran into my hostel.

I also told her about an argument I’d gotten in the night before with a guy from the band at the bar we were at.  He told me, “You’re the hottest Asian chick here.”

I glared at him and said, “First, I’m the only person with Asian heritage in this whole town, so that’s a really lame compliment.  Second, I already told you that I’m Canadian so you can fuck off.”

He tried to backtrack.  “You could be white, black, Asian, whatever – you’re still really fucking hot.  I haven’t been able to keep my eyes off you all night.  I don’t care if you’re from America or Korea or –.”

“This conversation isn’t worth my time.  This is the last time I’m going to tell you to fuck off,” I said as I walked away.

Lastly, I reiterated that I work in Hillbrow.  I walk around the projects every day and often men try to touch my face or grab my arm.  I’ve really improved upon my death glare since working here, as well as my small-circle jujitsu to sweep a hand away or break a grip.

As I explained to my friend on the train, I don’t normally tell these stories because I don’t want people to think I’m more bad-ass than I am.  (Her response: “Omg Bethany you are bad-ass!”)  I don’t want people to expect audacious behaviour from me in the future.  In every “dangerous” or provocative situation, I’ve only reacted the way I did because I felt 100% comfortable.  I know how to read body language and I take my own intuition very seriously.

But sometimes that’s not enough.  Sometimes you have to stop playing the odds.

One of my South African friends always gives me safety lectures – as a result of my everyday attitude, not because I’ve told him any stories.  He says that foreigners come here and don’t understand the risks.  They do stupid things and don’t realize how lucky they are not to get hurt.

“Maybe you overestimate the probability of risk,” I once said, but then he drowned me out with anecdotes.

My Canadian friend thinks it’s really sweet when South African men show their concern for her by giving her safety advice.  I, on the hand, find it extremely irritating.

But now here I am, trying to take all this information a little more seriously.

Although, I admit, my change of thinking is not a result from the stuff that’s happened over the last couple weeks.  It’s come about because a friend is visiting me from Canada for a month and he arrives tomorrow.  I know his parents are nervous that he’s traveling to Johannesburg; I would never be able to forgive myself if something happened to him because I was too cavalier about our security in this city.

Furthermore, he’s the type of person who would worry too much if I put myself in danger.  If I did something stupid, his concern for my safety would ruin my flippant attitude and I’d probably end up creating tension in a previously lighthearted situation.

So don’t worry Mum and Dad: I’m going to take care of him better than I take care of myself!  This next month is probably going to be my safest in this country!


A bunch of people have emailed me their concern after reading this post.  Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted to my dumb behaviour.  However, I would like to explain a bit regarding the ride in Durban.  When the man stopped, I did a quick cost-benefit analysis of the likelihood of our taxi arriving, of being able to get another taxi, of missing our train, the mannerisms of the man offering the ride, and the ability of two strong, fit women being able to take out a skinny Indian who looked like he weighed even less than me.  In the end, I decided the risk of missing our train was greater than the risk from our would-be chauffeur.


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