The South African Series

Too-known American Savior Complex

American Reader: You know how it is, don’t you? Our country has this innate ‘can do’ spirit that is so formidable that it sometimes comes across as obnoxious. For whatever reason, we largely believe that we can solve the world’s problems…even though we’re hardly able to solve our own. Amazingly, there are just enough people in the world who believe Americans can wave their Yankee wands and make even the most miniscule problems disappear. Never mind that Americans largely do not possess any real working knowledge of anything outside of America: Hollywood has sold the ‘American solution’ to the nations, and we’ve bought it in droves, kit and caboodle. In the last act, we’ll all hold hands and walk off into the sunset.  

So here I am in South Africa, in all my Yankee-ness, working in a township that I know zip about, save the fact that the residents are poor and the children don’t have the best education. What makes me qualified to tutor these younglings? It’s not my degree in education – I don’t have one. It’s not my long history of working with little children – I’ve only had 6, and only with my own kids.  Nor is it the promise that I’ll be rewarded with any considerable remuneration for all my trouble – we’re paying our own way. Why am I in South Africa with these kids, trying to fix my mouth around every click and clack just to say ‘good morning’? Because I’m a too-known American with a savior complex. I can rig anything with some tape, string and spit. This has played out in a number of incidents.

Incident 1:

Lisakanya is an 11 year old girl who is in my reading and math group. Like many of the kids, she’s a slip of a thing with a bright smile. The second day we came to the after school program, one of the volunteers walked her over to me and asked me to help her with her leg.

“Her leg? What’s wrong with her leg?” I asked. I looked down and her left calf. Holy Mother of Jesus! What was that?!?

There, on her bony calf, was an open sore about the size of a small mango. Apparently, she had burnt it on a ‘stove’ almost 2 weeks before and it was festering. A ‘stove’ is a metal bucket filled with burning, molten firewood that many of the locals use to keep warm in the winter. She had sustained a third degree burn and no one had taken her to a doctor.

So what does the TKAWASC with a little bit of money do? She can’t afford to take the kid to the doctor, so indtead she goes to the pharmacist (the one who is incidentally impressed with my American-ness) and buys gauze, bandages and the best burn cream in Plett. As promised by the medics, her sore was healed a week later.


Incident 2

As fate would have it, many of the kids have grown up parentless and are being raised by older siblings or grandparents. One such little girl is some kid, whose name I of course can neither pronounce nor spell, who is turning 7 tomorrow. I discovered this when the information was thrust in front of me:

“Malaka,” said Charlotte, one of the local volunteers. “Please come.”

“Yah. What’s up?”

“I want to tell you something.”


“There is a little girl, her name is Blahblahblah,” Charlotte begins.

“Uh huh.”
“She’ll be 7 on Friday. It’s her birthday”


I still had no idea where this was going. She paused and looked at me. I looked back at her.

“So try and do something for her,” she concluded.

“Oh. Oh! Like a birthday party or something?”

She nodded. Well dag – now I’m an event planner?

“Okay. I’ll bring a big cake for everyone who is having a birthday in June. They can all celebrate at once.”

Fortunately, one of the life skills that my mother instilled in me was baking from scratch, and I’ll be rigging up a cake large enough for 80 kids next week. Why? Because I CAN.


Incident 3

This one was a doozie!

Thandiswa, a large church-going woman who has anointed herself as my new sister, pulled me aside earlier this week.

“I want to tell you something,” she said. “I am suspecting something.”

Uh oh. This could be anything.

She told me that she has 2 kids, which I knew, and that her husband wasn’t working, which I also knew.

“I am suspecting that I am pregnant,” she said. She was smiling wryly.

I don’t know the culture in South Africa, but in America when a Black woman says she’s pregnant it’s generally not cause for celebration…sadly. Should I congratulate her? Mourn for her?

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“If it comes that I’m pregnant, I’m going to take it out.”

“Take it out?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“Like abortion.” 

She looked at me like I was a dumbass.

“You know, it’s very hard to have kids,” she continued, justifying her decision. “When I told my husband what I was suspecting, he was very quiet and then after a few minutes he said ‘Yes. Take it out, because you know I’m also not working’.” She looked at me expectantly.

Now, keep in mind that at this point, I’d only known Thandiswa for one full week. How far could I go with expressing my opinion? Why did my opinion even frikkin’ matter? We have some basic things in common: We’re the same age, and our eldest kids are the same age as well. We’re both fighting the battle of the bulge. I looked around me and saw poverty all around me. I wouldn’t want to raise my children here either, but I still believe life is precious, regardless of geography and economy.

I asked her if she’s prayed, and she replied that she’s always praying.

“Well, I guess you need to talk to God,” I replied frankly. “If God says ‘Yeah Thandiswa, if you are pregnant, I want you to kill your baby because your husband isn’t working’, then go for it. But if God can bless one woman and give her the ability to take care of her children, why can’t he do the same for you?”

She was quiet.

“Your husband has had work before. He’ll get work again.”

The TKAWASC wouldn’t let it go there, however. Now my nights are spent trying to figure out how I’m going to save an unborn baby and economically empower my new sister.

Jeez. This one might be beyond me. I might need my friend Mom Five Times for this one. She can take $1.00 and plan a 6 course banquet.  

Incident 4

All IB students have to complete a certain number of CAS hours before they can receive their degree. CAS stands for Creativity Action Service. CAS has only served to aggravate my too-known American syndrome, because it gave me the tools to facilitate problem solving creatively. When we came to the after school program in Qulwayne, there were many basic things that were lacking…like an actual program. The kids would all loosely arrive between 2:30 and 3:30 pm, run around the grounds footloose and fancy free until 4:45 pm, eat and then leave. The too-known American in me could not let this continue. So I decided to institute CAS, with some Bible knowledge thrown in.

Sadly, the only acronym I could formulate with these terms was SCAB – which is ironically very fitting. My kids have a lot of scabs.

So now to the pleasure of the few parents I’ve encountered, and to the dismay of the children, we have structured half hour sessions until dismissal in the evening.  

To facilitate my SCAB program, we need notebooks, pencils, a white board, arts and crafts materials, on and on and on. This of course costs money, and money to provide for 80 kids. It’s only been a week, but I’ve been rigging and borrowing all over the place. Some of these prices are ridiculous. One store wants 479R ($70!) for a white board! So, I use my child support money to buy stationery; I go to a local office and shamelessly rape their photocopy machine to duplicate my lessons; I do what I can to get by.

Why? Because I’m a Too Known American with A Savior Complex. And to all my friends with the same complex American and otherwise, thank you for your support!