I don’t pretend for a second that England is without its share of problems—think Brexit, Boris Johnson, the cuts to the National Health Service, negotiations with the US that would drastically increase the price of medications and harm the NHS yet again, the inhumane hours for junior doctors, or the horrendous austerity measures which have wreaked havoc on thousands—but…
I arrived in England a year ago. Today marks the first anniversary since we arrived in the UK, landing at 4.45 am GMT on 29 November 2018. It’s been officially been a full year since I’ve seen so many people. It’s still hard to comprehend. Still, I don’t feel I made a mistake leaving South Africa even if I do miss the people fairly regularly. South Africa had a lot to offer me: a great education, good friends, and lots of memories. The question that had to be answered, though: are the good things about South Africa enough to keep me there? No. I don’t mean to seem harsh or spiteful towards the people I’ve left behind; it’s just that you are mobile. Especially with the advent of things like free instant messaging and fast transport, people aren’t bound to a particular geography. The reasons I left are.
It’s easy to think that I left South Africa because things were pushing me away. It’s true, there were quite big push-factors. There were also quite powerful ‘pull-factors’ to the UK; not all motivated by disability although disability did play a major part in the decision. While I have touched on my moving to England on here before and will do again at some stage no doubt, I think the first anniversary is an ideal time to touch on some unexpected observations I’ve picked up since arriving and the ways this move has changed me.
The Price of Milk
I didn’t know the price of a couple of pints of milk in South Africa. It sounds strange even writing this now but it’s true; I seriously didn’t know the cost of milk in Cape Town. On the face of it, it sounds like a rather odd thing to include in a post about my time in a new country but the fact that I know the cost of basic groceries speaks volumes. Why? Because it actually matters for once.
South Africa has come a long way in recent years on so many issues but it’s still not perfect. While I don’t pretend for a second that England is without its share of problems—think Brexit, Boris Johnson, the cuts to the National Health Service, negotiations with the US that would drastically increase the price of medications and harm the NHS yet again, the inhumane hours for junior doctors, or the horrendous austerity measures which have wreaked havoc on thousands—but it’s still a very different place, especially for disabled people. South Africa might want to become a more inclusive, accepting society but the reality is it’s still largely inaccessible to disabled people. While there are efforts being made by organisations around the country lobbying for change, it will be decades before they reach the same standard as the UK for disabled people. While I wholeheartedly support movements to change this, it’s important to remember that South Africa has decades of systemic and institutionalised discrimination to undo in ways the UK doesn’t. The fact that disability isn’t as high on the list is a sad, albeit understandable, reality.
The reason I’m unable to accurately quote the price of milk, then, isn’t because I was lazy—ok, well, not only because I was lazy—but because it was significantly more difficult for me to go shopping as, more often than not, the shops or the journey to those shops, wasn’t accessible enough to make my buying day-to-day groceries a regular possibility. The times I did go shopping, then, were often as an accompaniment to someone else and, therefore, the need for me to be conscious of prices was nowhere near as important. I mean, if I’m tagging along, there’s not too much point in paying as much attention, right?
Precisely because South Africa had notable accessibility problems, it was vastly more difficult for me to move around. While I had the ability to move around my environment and go relatively far distances, the fact that down-curbs and other features of an accessible environment were far less prevalent. As one might expect, the ability for me to walk around my neighbourhood, let alone the city, was greatly diminished. To go and do things I was often reliant on others. When you need to arrange things with others, it’s fairly obvious fairly quickly that you can’t simply arrange things solely around your schedule. To some degree, then, your diary is never truly yours but dependent on some external power—be they friend, foe, or Uber.
The ability to schedule your own day around your availability is remarkably more freeing than it sounds. For once, I can do what I like largely when it suits me and don’t need to rely on others to get to the office, the shops, or the local pub.
While services like Uber allows greater flexibility on your own time in South Africa you are still beholden to some other ‘controlling mechanism.’ In Uber’s case, cost. It’s also less embarrassing having to order an Uber after having drinks to literally travel a mere four streets to get back to your house after you already started walking back with them because you realise a little too late that the area you’ve lived in for most of your life is still so inaccessible you can’t move less than two miles without severe difficulty and, sometimes, injury. A year later, it is pleasantly surprising how a once-regular experience feels so astonishingly foreign.
It was not uncommon for me to be on some form of crusade while still in South Africa. Those who knew me, especially at university, would know of the many times I would be furiously scurrying around the place, often near boiling point as I tried to find an alternative access route or going to complain to a rather silent maintenance department or other official. Almost from the moment we landed, I was truly calm for the first time in a long time. For the first time in years, I didn’t have underlying anger waiting below the surface, almost waiting to burst out of me the moment yet another lift broke. For the first time in years, there wasn’t a ‘need’ to summon the level of energy that went hand-in-hand with rage. Even the times I come across the rare inaccessibility, I am constantly surprised at how hilarious I find it simply because of how anachronistic those experiences are with the new environment. Any joke would cease being funny if told too many times. Don’t get me wrong, I still remain committed to making the world more accessible; encountering inaccessibility is just far less aggravating than it used to be. Maybe it’s because I matured more this past year or maybe its because the vast majority of the people I encounter during these experiences are so apologetic about it in ways few South Africans that I’m able to keep calmer and healthier.
Would I go back?
England has its problems just like South Africa. It just so happened that the difficulties I faced in South Africa meant it made sense for me to move. I didn’t leave South Africa so much out of a need to get away from its problems as it was to run towards solutions available to me in England. For me to say I’d go back to South Africa permanently is almost impossible to say. The decision to move here was based on several factors of which the only one was love for the country itself. A decision to do the reverse would be influenced by the same considerations, if not wholly new and unexpected ones. The truth is, then, there’s no way to say. At least not yet. At the moment, though, I might well go back at some stage for a brief period but not to live.
PS, to those of you who would enjoy the poetry of it: this post went live at 4.45 am GMT.