Last week I heard this on the radio:

“Oh…those Americans are so paranoid!”

(Actually with the charming accent it sounded more like this: “Eish, those Ameerikuns ahh sor peeranoid!”)

The broadcasters were discussing the story about the Texas student whose homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb. I don’t know all details of that event but I’m sure the South Africans weren’t the only ones wondering whether it might offer some insight into America’s current psyche.

In any case, the comment did get under my skin a bit and has emboldened me to write this post about security. It is a huge aspect of daily life in South Africa. My personal interactions with people wouldn’t lead me to claim that South Africans are a paranoid lot, but I do think it’s reasonable that a newcomer might find the security measures bewildering and excessive.

There is obviously no one way that people do things here (or back home), but security systems in one form or another are ubiquitous. Here’s a glimpse of what I’m talking about.

To enter or exit our complex of 12 homes, you open or get buzzed in through this gate lined with razor wire.


Look at all these keys and buttons to remember for our alarm, doors, gates, and padlocks (not including the one for the safe in our closet!)


When we leave home we activate a security system with the dark blue button. Hopefully we do not mistakenly hit the red panic button or forget to deactivate the system when we return home! This would result in alarms going off and alerts to the security company. We would then receive a call to our cell phone in which we must offer an oral passcode (indicating that it was our error) or an “under duress” code (ensuring the arrival of armed guards).   At night the system can be activated so only a portion of the house is monitored for movement.

There are two of these doorbell-like panic buttons in our house. (So glad I don’t have curious toddlers with me!)


Windows and doors have iron bars and gates on them, or a sensor tied to the alarms which detects if a window shatters.


Taken together with fierce dogs, visibly armed guards at malls and institutions, and the way the media exploits every incident for the shock effect – well, it does fuel a sense of foreboding.

Depending on where you live in both America and South Africa, these measures may seem extreme, totally normal, or somewhere in the middle. I can say that in the initial days after arriving from Fargo, North Dakota, all of this had me totally on edge. Having acclimated now, we hardly think about it. “That’s just how it is here,” is an easy way to move on! But does it need to be like this? Does it really make things safer? How much of it is a deterrent versus offering real protection – does it matter? Are the perceived dangers the real dangers? There’s an obvious financial cost, but what is the emotional cost of managing all those layers of security?

I recognize that because I’m not from here, I just simply cannot know. There are too many things I don’t understand well including the economics, history, and politics that fuel a staggering crime rate. Read the US State Department’s travel guidelines and you might well stay clear of South Africa altogether.

One thing is for sure here – fear is a powerful and renewable resource. It supports an important economic sector filling a need for employment. But even though people may explain things, “It’s best to be careful,” there are tradeoffs when we accept this as normal. I am guilty more than once since arriving of jumping to panicked conclusions when I find that the laptop is not where I expected it. Rather than supposing my own forgetfulness is the culprit I am quick to assume someone was out to get me and my belongings. Who wants to live like that all the time?

I wish I had a brighter thought to end this… but each thing I try feels rather contrived. What I can say is that I do not feel afraid all the time, just more cautious. Our children asked a lot of tough questions about these things in the beginning but seem to take it in stride now. And despite all this, a sense of safety does consistently shine through in the many people who have been helpful, generous, and friendly. For now, we have to accept that because this is not our home we cannot understand all that is at play nor can we fully trust our own judgements. I expect our perspectives to evolve over the course of the year and beyond.  What a great privilege it is getting to have this whole experience which can be so challenging to our thinking, logic, assumptions, and beliefs!

What do you think, dear readers? What do you see in these images? What do you hear in our questions and thoughts? How do you handle security in your own life? How did you decide to do what you do?  And is it a given or are you frequently rethinking what is appropriate?


5 thoughts on “Paranoid?

  1. There is a reality check in your new world that here we can try to ignore – depending on where we live, depending on who we are, depending on where we work. Living with fear on a daily basis is known to too many in this world. It could be that being available to this known for this time may be one of your most invaluable experiences in that, now, as a mom, as a couple, as a family, perhaps ‘security’ will have new translations. And, those will sustain you all your days.

    Am wondering if Simon is ready for grad school? His blog was fabulous.

    Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly isn’t easy!! But, you’re in a place where Micah’s words will remind you of who we all are.

    upendo mno!!! Shoonie


  2. Amy

    What an interesting blog on the security measures which are now part of your everyday life. Clearly you are doing what is appropriate and functional where you are living, which was determined long before you arrived. It has nothing to do with your particular assessment of the situation, but rather what has been found to be the most useful methods for living there safely. Perhaps if you did not have children with you, you might feel compelled to live differently.

    As far as my own security needs, we have an alarm system in our LJ home and it is never turned on,but Ron has a security system in his car garage which is a 24/7 motion activated detection system. It is in a commercial area and the cars in the the garage are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, hence for insurance reasons it is a requirement.

    I have never felt insecure or frightened even when alone, some might call me careless, but I refuse to live intimidated or threatened in my own home. I think my self-confidence and assertive qualities are my best protection.

    I have been enjoying each of your blogs tremendously and know that you will make the most of this incredible opportunity as well as ensuring that your family will as well. It is fun to experience your adventures vicariously through your eyes.

    Take care and enjoy every moment…….as I know you do!

    Aunt Mary

    Sent from my iPad



  3. I have been meaning to comment on this ever since I first read it but just having the chance now…

    You post made me think of the documentary Bébé that came out in 2010. Perhaps you’ve seen it? Anyway, it chronicled the lives of four families around the world as they each prepared for the birth of their child. Although there were similarities across cultures, there were also stark differences in how each culture viewed things like infant safety for example. One scene in particular resonated with me: a couple in San Francisco fumbles with installing car seat, putting baby in rear-facing car seat etc while a couple in Mongolia exits a yurt, baby wrapped in blanket and mom hops on the back of a motorcycle holding dad with one arm and baby with the other. Both babies were unharmed in the making of the documentary. 😉

    Your post and that documentary just reminded me that our cultures often define *for* us what is safe. What is right. What is wrong. If we go against those “norms” there is a cultural price to pay. And many of us just don’t want to deal with the hassle. Regardless, I think it’s important to explore these “norms” and challenge the ones that seem excessive or baseless. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

    Keep the thought-provoking posts coming.

    With love,



  4. I find myself delighted that, upon returning to Israel for the first time in 21 years, I was assured by the current christ church volunteers (where I used to work), that it is just as safe now as it was then to walk throughout the old and new cities of Jerusalem at most hours of the day and even into the late evening. And I have certainly found this to be true the past few days. This reassurance was, however, in sharp contrast to my first experience when we arrived in Jerusalem on saturday. The Jewish taxi driver who dropped us off at the primarily Arab Jaffa Gate, did not even drive us in for fear of his safety. He also very fearfully warned us that it is a VERY DANGEROUS area now. Then he proceeded to drive off just as my hand grasped the handle on my guitar in his trunk. Fortunately, I managed to pull the guitar out without wrenching my arm or worse. I am still not certain whether he meant to steal it or was just fearful for himself (as many jews who do not regularly go into the old city can be very fearful of it.) Truthfully, in climates like this one never knows. However I have decided for myself this week to take the more positive view and think better of most people rather than worse. It has certainly made my stay here much more enjoyable. 🙂


  5. Pingback: Nature is not a TV Program – On not seeing turtles | sevennorthdakotas

We welcome your public comments to our blog:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s