As you may know, I spent a few years living in the small town of Prince Albert. I returned to the city for a range of logistical reasons. I have now been back almost a year and a half, and realise that I have spent much of that time in mourning. I have been grieving the loss of small town living. I kept a house in Prince Albert and have returned there for weekends and recently for a ten day visit. Every time I go there, I feel significantly happier. I attributed this to many different things and thought about it a lot. It is not that Cape Town is a bad place, it is very beautiful and I have many dear friends here. My work is here and there is a range of stimulating and exciting things to do.
I realised that living a small town like Prince Albert (I am not sure if it is the same in all small towns) gave me two things which are far harder to get in a city. It gave me a community to which I belonged (and still do judging by the response I get when I go back there), and it gave me access to the diversity in others and myself.
By “community” I mean that in Prince Albert I am surrounded by a group of people who all know each other, and who pass information around very quickly. Some people regard that as gossip and may not like it. And of course, people in Prince Albert do gossip, but mostly it is not malicious. What it does mean is that the people of the town pass information around that when you need something or are in trouble in some way, you very soon get help from a variety of quarters. Recently, one of the two town doctors’ son was severely injured in an accident. The doctor and his wife had to rush to Cape Town to spend time with their son who is now thankfully ok. They left behind their practices (his wife is a physio), their guest house, their animals and their large and wonderful vegetable garden. In their absence, everything kept going. The people of Prince Albert simply jumped in and sorted it out. The town also held several events to raise money for medical bills. This is a high profile story, but it is one of many. When my daughter was caught behind a flooding river 3 years ago for two days in the pouring rain in a tent whilst running a 40 degree temperature, many people in the town got together to ensure that she was rescued. And, on a much more mundane level, when my fridge broke last week, the guy at the hardware store just happened to know the number of the guy who fixes fridges, who popped in to look at my fridge an hour later. Because the community is well defined – there is simply miles and miles of Karoo all around – and because it is small enough, there are clear boundaries that hold the group of people together as a functioning system. There is strong identification with being a resident of Prince Albert, and there is a sense of needing to look after one another.
In terms of the second part of what Prince Albert gave me, access to diversity in myself and others, it is wonderful to be interacting with people without too much concern about whether you fit in. In Prince Albert, it does not really matter what age you are, or how much money you have, how good looking or thin you are, how big your house is, or how educated you are, when you are considering your membership of the community. Everyone belongs, simply by virtue of living there. It does not mean that everyone likes one another, or that everything is perfect, but it does mean that there is a sense of membership that transcends the superficial aspects of being human. In one day walking along the main street, I will have 10 conversations with 10 vastly different people, carrying the full diversity of our humanity. In other words, one cannot build or sustain the defensive structures known as monocultures in a small town, one cannot relegate the unpalatable and unpleasant to an area behind a real or metaphorical wall or fence, one simply has to live with the richness and difficulty of the diversity around one all the time. This does not mean that there is no prejudice – of course this is a South African town – but there is an integration of parts of humanity that would elsewhere be disavowed. Even the town drunk (and there are a few of them) attends the annual Olive Festival and is greeted by fellow townspeople.