“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, not give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much”
The refrain of “Cry, the beloved country…” runs through Alan Paton’s 1948 book of that title. His book poignantly tells the journey of a pastor who travels to Johannesburg to find lost family only to find his only son being convicted of murder. But the book is really about fear: what fear causes people to do, how it affects everyone, and what can happen if one tries to confront one’s own fears. Paton later reflected on the above passage in his 1987 Introduction:
“This passage was written by one who indeed had loved the earth deeply, by one who had been moved when the birds of his land were singing. This passage suggests that one can love a country too deeply, and that one can be too moved by the song of a bird. It is, in fact, a passage of poetic license. It offers no suggestion as to how one can prevent these things from happening.”
Much has changed since Paton wrote his famous book. It was published at a time when racism was growing in South Africa but before the regime changing elections that ushered in apartheid. Paton died in 1992, two years before Nelson Mandela was elected president and at a time when the political landscape of the country was still in flux. However, the effects of fear that Paton reflects upon in his book still ring true in South Africa today.
I can understand Paton’s reflection; I have fallen deeply in love with South Africa from the view of Table Mountain and the blares of vuvuzelas to the dry flowing hills of Pietermaritzburg and the roosters leisurely walking along the sidewalk. Traveling alone and in a new context, however, brings its own sets of fears: getting around a city at night, calling a cab, taking the public train to Stellenbosch, picking up the phone and calling my first contact, meeting new friends, going to a new church alone. There are fewer “safety nets” to which I have grown accustomed, and sometimes it is all-too-tempting to stick to what quickly became familiar territory. This is especially the case when you read about crime in South Africa. Fortunately, the other advantage to traveling alone is that this familiar territory quickly becomes suffocating; within a day, I was ready to pick up the phone and call someone and was ready to hop a taxi and explore beyond what was close.
As my travels continue, I am very aware of my fears and the decisions I am prone to make because of them. Reading Paton’s book has helped me to become more aware of these fears and to be more willing to confront them. The results of acting solely based on fear are far too disastrous to allow fear to consume me. Paton’s description of Jo’burg made me fearful of setting foot in the city: the general idea being that Jo’burg is the city from whence no one ever returns. Pair that with the list of “DON’T’s” found in every guidebook entry on Jo’burg and I began to develop a growing fear of my three weeks in Jo’burg. But much of this fear simply has to do with the fact that Jo’burg will be my third arrival on unfamiliar turf, my third time of having to adjust to a new place. There’s a part of me that wants to go back to Cape Town, until I realize that once I settle into Jo’burg, I will probably learn to love it as much as I have grown to love Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town.
The other advantage to facing my fears has been that I have talked to others about my travels and concerns. This has been immensely helpful, especially when I was told that the area where I am staying is one of the safest. Further, people have said that while crime in Jo’burg is a larger problem, you have to always remember that most people remain safe and the majority of South Africans are good people. It’s exactly the same case as when I moved to Chicago! As long as you stay smart and keep your fear in check, everything should be fine…