07 May 2009
I don’t pretend to know everything about South Africa and I realize I have only been here for 3 months, so let me preface this with the fact that everything I say is entirely from my own perspective.
In the past 3 months all of us have ventured into townships whether it be for work, activist projects, the ANC rally, or just to visit friends. In fact, going into the townships has become such a regular occurrence for many of us, especially those working in Khayelitsha, that we don’t see or think of it as abnormal.
However, I found that whenever I talked to white South Africans about my time in the townships, I got the same shocked response. “You did WHAT?!” was common as was simply looking at me disapprovingly. I would continue to tell them how great it was and how much I enjoyed myself, but they didn’t hear any of it. They would tell me how unsafe it is and that I clearly don’t know what I’m doing because I don’t live here. Many people told me that if I were to live here, my views would change and I would realize it was a lost cause. Others would simply start making racial jokes, ending any forum for discussion. I found myself offended and shocked at such responses. I know racism exists and I know it is deeply ingrained in society, but to have it be so obvious took me completely off guard.
To be fair, there was the occasional person who was intrigued by what I had to say and was at least able to appreciate that things were changing for the better. Though, not a single local person I talked to had been into a township. I was amazed at the fact that people who actually live in Cape Town hadn’t seen such a huge part of their own country. I considered that it was just the people I was talking to and that they were not representative of the average person. However, Julie and I were talking to the woman in charge of the garden where we did our activist project and she said that the only white people who volunteer there are those from overseas.
During the last week of our trip, I stayed overnight in Khayelitsha with a friend. He had to be at school early in the morning so I took the train with him into Cape Town. It wasn’t that I was the only white person on a completely packed train that surprised me, because I was expecting that. It was the fact that people blatantly and unabashedly stared at me. It wasn’t in a rude way and I felt completely safe, but it was very clear that white people taking the train from Khayelitsha in the morning simply doesn’t happen. I wasn’t ready for it. I mean, I knew it was uncommon for white people to be in the townships especially over night, but I didn’t realize how outrageous my actions must have seemed.
I don’t understand how people can tell me not to go to these areas when they’ve never actually been themselves. It seems hypocritical to me and does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes that have little to no truth to them. I feel as though racism will always exist until these stereotypes are broken and people integrate. South Africa has such a great opportunity to do this as people are still open and hopeful for a better future. However, it is the responsibility of the richer populations to take charge on this. Poor people can’t simply move into rich neighborhoods or attend expensive private schools; it has to work the other way around.
There was nothing that made me feel more like I belong here in South Africa than staying in the townships these past few weeks. Throughout the entire trip, I have been made to feel at home in so many situations and by so many people that it’s unreal but nothing comes close to the genuine welcome I received while in these areas that I was so quickly told to avoid.
Riding in mini bus taxis, playing dominoes in the street, buying 3 Rand grapes on the corner, waking up at 7am to children happily fooling around outside, going to visit friends without invitation, playing cricket with a scrap piece of wood, learning xhosa clicks or at least practicing them, going to the shebeen to catch the last minutes of the game. These are the memories that are fondest in my heart and this is the South Africa that I will always remember.
04 May 2009
This blog comes a week late for a number of reasons. I was so pre-occupied my last week in Cape Town that it completely slipped my mind until I returned. It has now been a week since I left Cape Town and it has been quiet a difficult week. It is not so much adjusting back into my old setting that has thrown me off, but rather missing the life that I had built so perfectly in Cape Town.
Of course I miss everything about Cape Town; seeing Table Mountain everywhere I go, walking across the Rondebosch commons, the delicious sushi (particularly salmon fashion sandwiches), the daily train and minibus rides, going to the office where I worked in town, going up to UCT on Thursdays, spending lazy weekends at Clifton or Camps Bay beaches, and the list goes on. I miss even the little things, like seeing women walking around with children attached to their back by a towel or blanket tied to their chest and seeing the adorable little heads bobbing precariously up and down. Most of all, however, I miss the people- all of the people, and especially my irreplaceable friends.
Walking to the train station, at the minibus station in town, through the underground mall, down the streets of downtown Cape Town- I felt so comfortable and at ease. I can’t properly explain or put my finger on what is different or why I do not feel this way here. What made Cape Town such a welcoming place? Maybe it’s the idea of “ubuntu” and the way people live their lives by this idea, I’m not sure, but it definitely has to do with the people and the way that they relate with one another. Everyone acts as themselves, they seem comfortable with who they are and seem sincere and genuine in their daily interactions with others. In turn, I was left no choice but to act solely as myself. I did not have to pretend I was anyone else to try and fit in, I felt like myself more than ever before. Coming home, this has stayed with me. I now, have a much better grasp on who I am and this is the most valuable thing I could have gained on a personal level. At the same time, it is strange coming home and feeling as though it is not home anymore. I have spent my entire life in New York, however, during my three and a half months in South Africa, I came to feel more at home than ever before.
Although my departure from Cape Town was quite traumatic, I found some comfort in my pain. My immense sorrow indicates how deeply the past three and half months affected and changed me. I have gained unspeakable amounts and I now know what my passion and calling is, I know where I am happy and how I can find happiness and I realize what is truly important to me.
I never said goodbye to South Africa, but rather, see you soon because I plan to go back as soon as possible. I want to travel a lot in the future, however I feel that my time in Cape Town was cut short and thus, I must return before going elsewhere. Part of me will remain dissatisfied and unfulfilled until my return. Until then- I will reflect upon what I have learned and be grateful for the experiences and opportunities I had, unforgettable people I have formed unbreakable bonds with and the love I have found.
26 April 2009
Leaving South Africa feels like being ripped apart from a second home. We’ve all grown together in a unique way as a household. We grew together around issues that would never be brought up outside of our unique learning environment. We each had our own internship and volunteer project and we’d all hear stories from everyone about what their experiences and what they were learning.
At times we would be involved in each other’s internships or volunteer projects. I found myself one Saturday at a protest against the government that Dan brought me and a few students along with. I found myself on a few Fridays walking dogs and playing with cats at an animal shelter where Michelle and Chelsea volunteered .
Teachers didn’t just teach us inside of the classroom and our internship coordinators weren’t just our superiors. Many were met with outside of the classroom at restaurants like Swingers for Monday night jazz, and at the braai (barbecue) our household threw one Sunday, on our excursion trip, and on occasion at many of the dinners Marita held at her flat. The role a teacher should have in their student’s learning experience has been changed in my eyes. They shouldn’t just lecture a class
A variety of beaches were all within a 20 – 45 minute minibus or train ride. Surf, lounge around, watch the sunset, or play in the waves. Lions head is a mountain that is 15 minutes away from our house. It overlooks the entire city. A few of us hiked up the mountain twice on evenings in time to see the sun set, the full moon rise, and the entire city lights turn on.
The book lounge 20 minutes away in the city holds speakers every week that address issues like poverty, HIV/AIDS, and gender inequality (the free food and wine is great too). Class was class, but we’d be able to apply our knowledge everywhere we went in Cape Town, whether it was listening to a speaker or conversing with people at our internship or anywhere really. Rugby, jazz, soccer, pool games, running with housemates, township visits, food/wine tasting festivals, are all just a few of the activities I will be missing.
I found myself doing something new almost every day. I didn’t keep a set routine to abide to. If someone brought up an activity I would often tag along without much questioning.
Before the trip I was quite pragmatic in my routines. I was more distant, kept to the books and work, and fantasized about landing a job day in and day out that would yield an above par starting salary after graduation. Not much else concerned me. I have to admit that I was pretty boring and predictable.
The first month was difficult for me. I could barely enjoy myself during the orientation week because it was a “relaxed” time where there was no work or assignments to be done. I jittered around and took notes at many of the places we went to like I was going to be tested or something. Not cool. I was a bit of a workaholic before the trip and a month or so into the trip. I’m sure anyone that knows me can affirm that. The “South Africa” laid back lifestyle wouldn’t get through to me I thought to myself.
But I have relaxed a bit and gotten a taste of a wide variety of lifestyles. One of my favorite days was a Saturday that started out at a protest against the government with the Social Justice Coalition followed by a Food and Wine tasting festival and then the International Jazz Festival that night. The first part of the day I was surrounded by disadvantaged Cape Townians from the less well off areas. Most people were black. The second part of the day at the food/wine tasting festival I was surrounded by fairly well off people – mostly white. The diversity in people and things you can do in a day in Cape Town astonishes me.
I can go on and on, but I won’t. I’m looking forward to stepping off of the plane on U.S. that I soon depart for in less than three hours from now (not really, but I don’t have a choice, so I might as well look forward to my return). What’s the same? What’s changed? Right now it feels like I am returning to somewhere else that wasn’t where I departed from – almost like another study abroad experience.
24 April 2009
As my concluding blog I would like to touch on several things that have happened towards the end of this trip. In class we talk about race and class and I have seen first hand how these things play out in the real world, in a different country. The rich white population in South Africa has grown up completely different from the poor black population. If you imagine your childhood what do you see? Do you picture playing sports in the park? Sitting on the couch watching your favorite movies? Playing video games on the computer or game system, catching a flick at the theatre with your friends? It is eye opening to realize that these memories are not shared by everyone, no matter how basic they seem. Maybe a child here has a memory of crowding around to watch a movie, but instead it is on a tiny television which is plagued with static and instead of sitting in a well lit room on a couch they sit on a blanket on the floor in a room with no lamps, where the wall is peeing and there are no doors to separate the rooms. Their memories of playing sports is playing with a soccer ball made of wet newspaper, plastic bags and other miscellaneous items rolled up as circularly as possible. And instead of playing on a nice grass field they are playing on the brown dirt that kicks up and gets in your eyes wearing old sneakers or most likely no shoes at all. That going to the bathroom means walking outside to an outside toilet stall and getting water requires walking to the water pump. Computer and video games are completely un-available. So all of my memories of playing Mario Brothers or Mario Kart are so distant from their reality that it is hard to picture how a child of my generation has never experienced it. It’s not just that you don’t own a computer and you could just go to your cousins or neighbors, but it’s that no one has a computer. Every road you ever go on in your daily tasks, house after house, shack after shack there is not a single computer. I had 6 learners over the house on Monday and this would explain why, even at age 18, some do not know how to turn on the internet, or how to move the mouse on a laptop, or they must search slowly and carefully on the keyboard to find the letter they are looking for.
During our stay here there has been a huge buzz about elections, since the next president will be changed this year. Today was election day. It was a public holiday and many people did not have to go to work so that they could vote. There were voting stations everywhere, even at Thandokhulu. I experienced what voting was like in Khayelitsha today, a huge black township in Cape Town.
On the streets leading to the numerous voting locations are tables set up where people try to advocate for a particular political party. On the street I was on there was an ANC table, and a few meters down a COPE table. The people there handed out fliers and flashed banners. Unlike the US there are many political parties. The ballot is very long and lists all of the parties with the picture of the face of the president next to each party. I was able to walk through the entire process, all the way up to the booth.
I entered the primary school which was turned into a voting station and waited in line for about 15 minutes with my friend who lived there. Inside there was a room with tables and booths set up. She showed her ID and they stamped it stating that she had voted. They also put ink on her thumb nail to indicate that she had voted. This was done mostly so that a person cannot vote in one location and then call IEC and request to vote in a different location, to have a double vote. Then, she is handed the two ballot papers: one for the national leader, and one for the provincial leader. You can vote a different party for each.
Then she walks to the booth and puts an X next to which party she wants for national and which one she wants for provincial. Then she just drops these two papers in a box in the middle of the room. Outside there is election excitement here and there. I saw at least four cars which were painted with ANC on them and with people hanging out the window screaming “ANC” and waving around banners. One car even had a mega phone to scream out ANC supportive statements. Many people walked around with ANC T-shirts. There were also a few COPE T-shirts, but majority of overt supporters were for the ANC. My friend voted for COPE, a party that recently branched from the ANC. My other friend in the same location voted for ID- the Independent Democrats. There were also small rallies and celebrations for the ANC which is obviously going to win because of the large amount of supporters it has. Many of the learners that I talked to who were old enough to vote said that they were not going to vote, that they were not ready yet and did not know enough about it. Some of the teachers told me they would not vote because they do not see any party that they agree with and see them all as corrupt. Either way, there were many people out today voting, and many were very enthusiastic about it.
Being in South Africa allowed me to reflect on how differently communities and populations live and also how other people’s kindness has shaped my childhood. If it weren’t for another person spending money and time simply out of their heart to do something for me like taking me to the movies, buying me a reading book, driving me to soccer practice, taking me with them to family outings, taking me to eat out I would never have experienced many things that brought joy to the early years of my life. I have told myself since I was little that if I ever hade the opportunity and ability to do the same for someone else I would not hesitate. For example, when some people my age buy their own cars they don’t offer to give people a ride or do so only if they are given gas money. There were so many times when people have given me a ride and expected nothing from me, so how could I deny the next person that? South Africa has given me the opportunity to give back and make a difference in someone’s life. From seeing the smile and joy on the learners face when I bought her a cake on her 18th birthday in class to giving a dedicated learner a much needed English dictionary. The 50 or 100 rands that this would take ($5, $10) is an impossible amount for them when all they can think of to do with their money is to buy a warm enough winter jacket or lunch snack.
23 April 2009
It’s time to depart. We had our final thank you dinner last night. It was a great time to close our loose ties and be together with everyone one last time. The food was plentiful and delicious which added to the party. It’s extremely difficult for me to gather my feelings on leaving and my time spent here. However, I was chosen to speak for the group at the dinner. It was a thank you speech directed towards everyone that had an impact on our experience. I think it expressed my feelings and the group’s sentiment. Therefore, I think it’s appropriate to conclude the final blog with the final speech:
‘This may seem a bit blunt, but my goal for this speech is not to delve into a heart wrenching soliloquy about the ways we will forever be changed or how Cape Town has left an imprint on our hearts. I want to go about a different approach. I want to explain the legitimate reasons for why we are so grateful for the opportunities and experiences that have been granted to us by our hosts, advisors, leaders and most importantly, our teachers.
No matter the title or rank of our co-workers, we have learned an incredible amount. It seems a trifle unfair that we are exiting Cape Town with so much more than what we came with, and only leaving behind our toils of 3 ½ months. In each and every aspect of our internships and classes we have dealt with something new and have been taught innovative ways to deal with these challenges. The excitement we felt from these occurrences rippled through the house as each of us began to trump the other with some strange or interesting escapade that occurred while interning. For this, I thank you. I cannot truthfully claim that I never felt idle or bored - no offense Gilad for it was always a nice break from the budget spread sheets – but this was all part of the experience.
Every aspect of knowledge gained during our working lives has been soaked up and is ready to be put to use at a moment’s notice. We weren’t given the tourists superficial exposure, but we were accepted into the real and sometimes gritty working life of Cape Town. Yet again, I give you my praise. You trusted us to let us become part of your team, and I hope that we lived up to and exceeded your expectations. For you all greatly exceeded ours
I would like everyone here to know that this experience has become an immense part of our lives because of you! And we are utterly grateful for the talent and aid that came along with it. It is with heavy hearts that we now have to leave and say ciao to the people and places we have become so absolutely fond of. Yet, let’s perk up, and enjoy the food, drinks and most importantly, the company. Thanks for everything!’
Onwards to the United States!
As I am writing this, I am sitting in the Results Operation Centre for the Western Cape elections. It is nearly 1am, and it is the culmination of not only a week full of 11 hour days, but also of my internship here at the IEC. The mood has calmed down from the hectic activities of the last week, and most of what is left is to watch the results come in, and to see all of the work we have been doing play out.
Today two things happened that have really caused me to reflect on the journey that I, and all of the students, have been on since we have arrived.
The first is probably the more defining, today there were 7 American volunteers that are also here on a study abroad program, except that they have only arrived in the country 2 or 3 weeks ago, so I am seeing them at the end of their orientation weeks. The other is that I was part of a media tour around the metro area with media, foreign dignitaries, special guests, and, of course, the Americans.
We found out a few days ago that the Americans could be coming, and the general consensus around the office was that people were very excited for me to meet others of my kind. (Maybe one of them will be from Connecticut too!!) I was of course, more hesitant and from what I have come to see, it was with good reason. My initial reaction to the Americans was not positive, it essentially went something like this, “Good god, were WE this ignorant when we got here? That can’t be possible…”
Of course, I am not naive enough to pretend that I was as all knowing four months ago as I am now, but part of me doesn’t want to admit that I was ever in their shoes. I realize that most of my reflection on America is supposed to come after I get home, but sitting with my boss and talking to them, I couldn’t help but notice all the reasons that no one likes Americans. and so, I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out exactly when in the last semester I stopped being able to relate to foreigners here.
The other adventure of my day was the bus tour. There is a slow portion of the day here at the results centre which comes between the drama of opening the polling stations, and the drama of closing the polling stations to count votes. People are just voting, and there really isn’t much to do but wait. In order to fill the gap, we set up a bus tour with key people to drive around and visit some voting stations to give people a feel of the city and what the atmosphere of the day was. While of course, this was a work occasion and I had things to do, it was awesome to not only get a little break from the computer I’ve been staring at, but also to see in action all the things that my internship actually does.
We drove around mostly townships, we stopped in Langa, Joe Slovo, Crossroads, Khaylitsha, and Manenberg. At every stop we were invited to get off the bus, and to check things out. Some of the stations were temporary voting stations constructed with tents in small open areas, complete with a wandering goat or two, and then some were churches or schools. Everywhere we went, there were the a few common things, like party volunteers proudly displaying their shirts and signs. In Khaylitsha there were braai stands and other places there were speakers blasting music and no shortage of political party members dancing and singing the praises of their party. There were also hundreds and hundreds of very patient people standing in line to cast their vote. In short, it was a very South African experience.
The only thing that interrupted it was everyone from the bus making a point to note that things were going smoothly. People were standing patiently in lines that were literally going to take hours, and things were going just fine. But it was as if no one had expected that it would. I guess that is what happens when you only read media coverage of townships and don't actually see them for yourselves.
So I guess the general theme of what I learned on election day, as well as what I learned in general here in South Africa has something to do with looking a little deeper into things, giving the benefit of the doubt, and actually trying when it comes to getting to know other people, cultures, and any other kind of life experience.
22 April 2009
The Election Monitoring Network Internship Experience
South Africa national elections have just ended. During the past month and a half I’ve had the privilege of interning at the Election Monitoring Network.
Here’s a quick intro to the history behind South Africa politics and the Election Monitoring Network. South Africa as a nation hasn’t seen a democratic political atmosphere until 1994 when the National Party and along with it apartheid (segregation policies) were removed from government. The new atmosphere enabled people to openly question their democratic governance more, “how are you as my elected party going to address this problem my community has?” Questions of accountability weren’t able to be asked by the majority of the population before 1994. From 1994 to 2008 the one party that received the majority of votes was the ANC (African National Congress). Discontent of undelivered promises cultivated from 1994 to 2008. In 2009 the environment the political parties contested in changed again as citizens became more educated and experience about their rights. Places that used to be ANC dominate were now split between other parties for some reason or another due to discontent with the way the nation was being ran, i.e. lack of undelivered promises by the government over the past 14 years. A more competitive democratic environment emerged because of this – a type of environment South Africa has never seen before in its history.
The Election Monitoring Network’s mission is to ensure peaceful elections. The EMN deploys 500 monitors across the country among the nine provinces. The monitors keep their ears and eyes open for potential conflict hotspots and call their provincial coordinators to have the conflict resolved if one does arise. The EMN was formed by a multitude of civil society organizations across South Africa and is independent of government.
My role at the EMN has been to organize the information the monitors report and to assist my coordinator’s assistant with an assortment of duties – excel sheets, phone calls, setting up materials. Regardless, everyday was exciting and held a new challenge to be dealt with.
Some days were especially different from others. I’d find myself at the Archbishop of the Anglican Church’s house setting up for a briefing on the election related conflict that has occurred so the Archbishop could make a speech to the media afterwards. I’d find myself acting as an observer at a live televised political debate between the ANC, ID, DA, AZAPO, and COPE political parties. And I’d find myself having conversations about democracy and global affairs with election related international workers from other countries like Uganda and Kenya.
Becoming immersed in a fast paced neutral national election related environment was one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of. What I learned outside of a classroom was the actual dynamics of an organization whose mission was to ensure peaceful democratic elections. My coordinator Derrick, who is the national coordinator of the EMN, took me closely under his wing and involved me in all of the issues at the forefront of the organization. By the end of the internship I had received a 360 degree view of the election landscape and how an organization organizes itself to scan for and respond to election related conflict and then communicate this to other organizations, eminent persons, the media, and the public to ensure peace during the tender and delicate period of elections the nation goes through.
I will be taking so much with me back to the United States from my internship experience. Before the study abroad program I had never been educated or involved with any type of political, governmental, or electoral related affairs – but here I found myself at an internship three days a week where I met with admirable people all united with a common goal of creating a peaceful and fair democracy for South Africa and Africa as a whole. I have the highest respect for the people I worked with when I look at the type of past South Africa and Africa as a whole have been through. The work that they do contributes to creating a peaceful atmosphere where problems are negotiated peacefully rather than by force and disregard for others. I would have never had this learning experience if it wasn’t for the study abroad program and its amazing connections – thanks to everyone involved. I know I will be able to add a unique perspective to many of the initiatives that await me back in the United States. Most of all I’ve learned that I have A LOT to learn and that I’ll never know everything or solve every problem, but I hope to hit the ground running and continue the learning experience once I return.