We in New Zealand don't know we're alive

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Jackie Simkins (left) and Sue Curtis relaxing after a hard day in Dubai with an apple-flavoured shiska.
Jackie Simkins (left) and Sue Curtis relaxing after a hard day in Dubai with an apple-flavoured shiska.

Life in New Zealand might not be all beer and skittles, but there's nothing like spending time in Africa to give God's Own Country's problems some perspective.

So Jackie Simkins said after she and Sue Curtis returned from an African excursion that introduced them to the challenges faced by some of the poorest people on the planet, where even tourists, with their comparative wealth, often had to do without the most basic of facilities.

Jackie spent her childhood in Malawi, where her father was a police officer and her mother a nurse, and had been back there 20 years ago, so she knew what to expect. But she was still perturbed to find nothing had changed, and could not help comparing life there with what she was used to in Kaitaia.

"We're just so fortunate aren't we? We are privileged to live here," she said.

"We go to work, we earn a decent wage, and we have every opportunity to make life as good as we would like it to be.

"I think we've given our young generation far too much. Expectations are so high, and many of them will never be happy because they always have to have more than the next person. And they will go into debt to achieve that, or just take what they want."

She had seen signs of westernisation - McDonald's golden arches weren't hard to find in the cities - but in rural areas life didn't seem to have changed for generations.

The plastic bags that were seen everywhere were one small, unwelcome sign of 'progress,' as were the "mountains" of empty plastic water bottles, but they were also the most basic symptom of the need for effective leadership.

Rwanda did at least recognise the waste problem; the people there spent one day a month collecting rubbish.

In rural areas people still walked miles for water, as they always had, and were adept at feeding themselves in an environment that seemingly offered little, if anything, to support them, living in mud huts and tending their gardens. In some places even most of the wildlife had been eaten.

Of all the wildlife photos Jackie came home with, this was her favourite.
Of all the wildlife photos Jackie came home with, this was her favourite.

At least those living in rural areas seemed happy, but the cities were appalling, many people eking out a living by selling carvings, fruit, vegetables, whatever they could find to trade on the side of the road.

"There are so many of them; they almost attack you," she said.

And there was lots of evidence of disease - malnutrition, malaria, weepy eyes and skin infections.

The schools were sad places too. No books, no pencils, nothing.

"We saw a school with 120 kids crammed into one little room the size of this office [at Switzer Residential Care in Kaitaia] and one teacher."

The very few lucky ones were helped by US charity Determined to Develop, which gave them the chance to attend university. For the great majority life was focused on survival.

Even the Masai, the proudest of African peoples, had resorted to catering to tourists, welcoming them into their villages and homes.

"How dignified is it for these people to be selling trinkets on the side of the road. And how much longer can they survive like that?" she asked.

- Northland Age

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