A life of contradiction

2009-02-19 00:00

Imagine flying first class around the world on Air France with a personal waitron, linen tablecloths, silver cutlery, and the finest Bordeaux wines and foie gras that money can buy. Imagine staying in the best hotels, eating at the best restaurants, having access to a state-of-the-art flat in London’s Trafalgar Square and a former ministerial home in Kenya, all the while being paid a tax-free salary in British pounds, including free housing, medical care, education for the children and an annual visit home for the entire family. In a period of two years I gained 20 kilograms, travelled three times the distance around the world and had a fatter bank balance than I have ever had.

The development and aid jet set is an experience to consider. I left South Africa an activist committed to working for social justice and with a healthy disregard for money, power and privilege. Within a short period of five years, I was living in a mansion with staff, driving a fancy 4x4, managing a 20-country operation of 500 staff and an annual budget of over R200 million, and earning more money than the president of South Africa. For some, this would be living a dream. For me, it meant deep soul-searching and restless nights, so much so that I eventually turned my back on the cushy life on offer.

All of this would have been fine if I had a stomach for the good life and was engaged in a line of work that did not demand constant contact with the poorest of the poor. I earned access to this life not by being an outstanding entrepreneur but by being a sought-after “expert” in how to deal with poverty and, more specifically, people living in poverty. While I remained resolutely committed to my area of work, and attempted at all times to maintain personal integrity, I unwittingly degenerated into a life I did not really want or enjoy.

Singular short journeys connected the most bizarre of settings: I travelled from the refugee camps of Sudan to the finest Italian restaurant in one short flight, from the aftermath of Rwanda to a trendy Moroccan chill bar in Nairobi, from the remotest Gambian villages to an idyllic Senegalese seaside resort with a hall of food for its European visitors, from the war-torn Eritrean countryside to coffee shops in Stockholm and from untouchable villages in India to Parisian sidewalk dinners. While proving that the world is indeed a small place, my journeys also mirrored the inequalities that are often spoken of in the most abstract of terms.

A little incident prior to my leaving South Africa should have alerted me to my stomach’s weakness for these contradictions. I was on a short assignment in refugee camps and villages in northern Mozambique. Hunger and poverty are daily experiences of the people there. In particular, I watched a little girl resembling my niece walk in a visibly hunger-affected way down a long hill to get to where we were meeting. My heart ached as I imagined what her life was like. It was a feeling that took possession of my thoughts until I reached my home in Johannesburg. As I entered, I got the whiff of meat cooking and heard sounds of a party. My American partner had decided to celebrate our new home with a “traditional” party, complete with a slaughtered animal hanging from a tree in the back yard. The pain in my heart and haunting thoughts of the little girl caused me to get into my car immediately and drive 500 kilometres to Pietermaritzburg.

I have always regarded myself as sensitive and committed enough to care about people and their plight and to relate this to my own life. I have also considered myself to be sufficiently on guard with regards to my values, morals and ethics. I cannot explain how and when my slide into an unthinking indulgence began, or whether it was that at all. I do not think that I relished one decadent moment without some resistance from my inner voice. I attempted to make significant statements of my own: I once quit a high-flying enjoyable job to take care of my two young sons in an extremely macho Senegal and I rode a motorcycle to work out of concern for the environment, despite the fact that my staff mobilised against this on the basis that I was a CEO and it was unbecoming.

There must have been a hankering in me for a taste of the good life. I grew up in the poorest part of Northdale in a family of inadequate means. I maintained a frugal life and worked in the anti-apartheid movement for a pittance. Through the wisdom of my parents, I had a solid spiritual grounding. It is probably the latter that constantly tormented my complacency.

The problem for me was this: a well-meaning, committed, spiritual person became surrounded by a life fraught with contradictions. I would never have considered myself corrupt, but a chasm arose between my values and the life I was leading. I did not intentionally harm another, nor did I steal or skive. I lived, however, with discomfort and disharmony. Eventually, I decided that enrichment through focus on the poverty of others is not the life for me.

I ponder what my fellow comrades have faced in the indulgences and temptations that power and privilege in the new South Africa have brought them and how they have dealt with them. Where we all started and where we have all ended are a universe apart.

Who is Kamal Singh?

Kamal Singh was raised in Northdale, Pietermaritzburg. After being an activist locally, he worked internationally as a specialist in participatory development while living in England, Senegal and Kenya. He has managed national and international non-governmental organisations and has been a consultant to the United Nations and several governments. He is currently attempting to make an honest living in Johannesburg as the director of his own transport company called SoWhere2.

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