Life in The Box

The kitchen area: Blue
bucket under the bed is the
kitchen sink.
I call it “the box,” and occasionally, when feeling affectionate, “my box.”

The box has been my home for the last 18 months. Originally designed as the maid’s quarters, the box sits just behind the main house at one of our “Family Homes.” The living area is about 10ft sq. Including the attached showertoilet, the box is about half of the space I had in Mmametlhake. (A showertoilet is a working shower with hot water that hangs almost directly above the flush-toilet—an amenity that my little, plumbing-less house in the village lacked.) The tap just outside the door is used for all other water needs, including, but not limited to—teeth brushing, hand washing, dish washing, and drinking water.

The sleeping and sitting area.
Dressing area along left.
Very few people have been admitted into the box. I don’t even require a whole hand to count them. This is partly due to a general lack of space. One person fits relatively comfortably. Add another into the mix and it starts feeling a bit cramped. I don’t want to think about what it would feel like with three. (I’m fairly certain we would have to move some of the furniture outside.)

But the no admittance rule is also partly due to my own embarrassment and, to be truthful, shame.

The showertoilet.
I have a good friend who when she first came to Jo’burg was employed as a “domestic worker” and lived in quarters similar to mine. She was given her own mug, plate and utensils and was told that she was not allowed to use the ones in the main house. If she needed to use the toilet, she was to go outside to her quarters. This was about eight years ago, 10 years after Apartheid ended.

Today in South Africa, domestic workers are more common than they are rare. And with the rise of the upwardly mobile, black middle-class, it is not just white South Africans who employ domestic workers. Almost everyone I know in the Johannesburg middle and upper classes has a maid and/or a gardener working at their homes one or two days a week. Coming from an upbringing where only the very upper class employed maids on a regular basis, I have struggled to come to terms with the commonality of domestic help in South Africa.

Most domestic workers are part of South Africa’s informal economy—meaning that they are not protected by contracts or worker’s rights and may be underpaid and exploited. But in a country where unemployment hovers around 25% and may in actuality be much higher, South Africa needs its informal economy. The livelihood of so many people relies on these workers earning their weekly wages.

It is a very hard thing to come to a solid opinion either for or against domestic work. And I don’t imagine it is something that I will ever resolve completely in my own mind. I’ve often had to choke down my anger when someone tells me that employing a domestic worker is the least they could do, presenting their action as some sort of altruistic benevolence. In these moments, I find my inner voice shouting, “What then is the most you could do?” I appreciate people who can admit that not wanting to do the cleaning themselves is part of, if not their main, motivation behind employing a domestic worker.

But on the flipside, I have many friends who take a true interest in their domestic workers—helping them to obtain their matric (high school diploma), teaching them budgeting and needed financial skills, paying their way at technical colleges and the like. They ask the question that has been used to teach so many of us to dream and imagine: What do you want to be when you grow up? What in your wildest dreams do you want to do with your life and how can I help you get there?

During the past few weeks of box living, I’ve been slightly less mobile and been more confined to the box. The company car that I drive on a regular basis has been at the panel beaters (body shop) for some much needed repairs which means that I’ve been on foot and relying on others for transport.

As much as I know that I could easily get on a minibus taxi for easy and somewhat convenient transport, I’m loathe to do it. I’ve enjoyed the freedom and the way the car has enlarged my box, providing an easy escape route. Although taxis were my main mode of transport during my Peace Corps days, since gaining car independence, I have not been able to revert.

During my 19 months of Peace Corps service, I accepted taxi travel and even learned to embrace it—learning the hand signals that would tell the driver my destination before I embarked, the proper placement of bags and packages that would yield maximum comfort for long-distance taxi travel, and to manage the ever swinging moods of the drivers. For a white, middle-class American, I was fairly good at taxi-travel and even at times found myself enjoying it. But from the first moment I sat behind a steering wheel again, I knew it would only be with great difficulty that I would clamber onto a taxi again.
My neighbor's taxi in Mmametlhake.

Not having wheels the past few weeks, I’ve felt petty and selfish as the white-washed walls of the box closed in on me, my possessions feeling as though they might bury me and I that I would be found sometime later flattened by the smallness. I would begin to feel sorry for myself and then remember how many others lived in such close quarters. Close quarters that housed themselves and their children and their partners and extended family. I would remember the make-shift homes of corrugated tin, unable to keep out the elements, baking in the summer sun, unsecure and confined. I would remember these things and try not to remember my storage shed full of furniture and possessions collecting layer upon layer of dust. I would try not to remember my sprawling basement apartment in Colorado Springs with its quaint eccentricities that somehow made it feel like home. I would try not to remember the space that I will have in a few short weeks when I returned to Lubbock.

The problem with living simply is that I know differently. I know what it is like to not live simply, and I will never not know that feeling. No matter how much I separate myself, choosing a simpler path will always require a level of self-denial. It will always cost me something within myself and ask me to die to myself. And I know how easily I will slip back into the lure of abundance available in the US because I know how easily I have slipped back into the the lure of abundance available in Johannesburg.

Abundance in itself is not a bad thing. It is the gluttony and selfishness of abundance that breaks down the humanity inside of us. It’s how we manage the abundance and how we manage our own need for it. I won’t lie that I look forward to space and pulling my possessions out of storage. I know that day will be full of excited rediscovery, but I hope that in the process the lessons I’ve learned here about living simply will stay with me and that living simple with moderation will remain deeply implanted in my heart as I make choices and decisions that affect myself and others.