Ralph J. Bunche Center Howard University

On the African Continent…In South Africa

By April S. Wells

Most students of history know that the Atlantic Slave trade was primarily sourced by West African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. So I did not choose to study abroad in South Africa to go home, so to speak. Rather, I chose South Africa because it is one of the last African countries to still be in the process of transitioning from a systematically racist; minority ruled to an egalitarian, majority ruled country. As a political science major with a concentration in international relations, this was the opportunity to witness in person the things which I had been studying in textbooks for years. But while the dynamics of sub-Saharan post-independence did become much clearer from the inside, I learned so much more.

Home to eleven official languages and five of six environmental biospheres, South Africa is certainly one of the most demographical diverse and geographical beautiful countries in the world. A place of many contradictions, I constantly found myself in wonder. For instance, how could such God-touched beauty exist side-by-side with such man-made anguish? In a country which contains almost 90% of the world’s resources in platinum metals and some of the most plentiful sources of gold and diamonds, 80% of citizens live in abject poverty, poverty beyond the description of words. The black South Africans were simultaneously admiring and watchful. I saw many things that I did not believe. My home in Stellenbosch looked upon the Jonkershoek Valley and Stellenbosch Mountain. Each morning the valley was filled with clouds, and each evening, the sky behind the mountain became pink and purple. But each day on the way to class, I passed Khayalitsha Township, thousands of one-roomed housed constructed literally of plastic, sheets of aluminum, scraps of wood, and newspaper, containing seven time too many people per house. The dichotomies were brutally real and both painful and educational.

South Africa maintains a sizeable white population that, even though it is a small minority, maintained political and economic rule under the system of apartheid until 1991. Apartheid is an Afikaans word which means "separate" and indeed it did.

From 1947 to the end of apartheid, South African citizens were systematically divided according to race. Black South Africans had their citizenship and passports revoked and were forcibly moved to "tribal homelands" in desolate and barren parts of rural South Africa. White South Africans were given the sole dominion over choice education, places of living, and the rich industrial powerhouse of the country. Colored people (those of mixed racial heritage), occupied a position of flux, not having the rights of whites, but not relegated to Bantu status. During this time black South Africans were subjected to serf-like living conditions, state sponsored terrorism and police-administered violence, and educational and cultural deprivation. The effects of apartheid are felt even today as the country struggles to recover from years of debilitation.

Being a black American in Africa is an experience unlike any other.
There is a weight that you carry involuntarily, regardless of how secure with yourself you might be. Particularly in South Africa, I felt this …identity conf lict, so to speak. Who was I to be, African-American, or American? Could I even claim the title of African-American? Who would I have been had I grown up in South Africa as opposed to Atlanta, Georgia? How ironic is it that we long to reclaim the Motherland, while those distant relatives of ours long to be where we are? I was the pebble in the shoe of many people that I met during my year-long study abroad experience in South Africa. I irritated the conscious of white South Africa who could not type me, finger me, and relegate me to the stereotype that they held of all other blacks with whom they come into contact. I irritated the conscious of black South Africans who saw me as one of them, but having privileges far beyond anything that they could ever ask or imagine, and wondered why I had come back and why I was not doing more for them. I was a pebble in my own shoe.

But somewhere in the middle, I learned a great deal about both South Africa and myself. I found time to jump out of a plane at 3000 feet, to help run a really informal soup kitchen out of the house that I shared with 7 other American, and to take some

excellent history and political science courses from extremely well educated teachers. South Africa was so different from what I had expected, and so much more than I had ever hoped it would be. I learned a great deal about the past, and a little bit about the future of this resilient country, which was born again 8 years ago. While a year is no time at all to get to know such a diverse country, I got to know enough that even now, I feel pangs of homesickness for the place at the literal other end of the world.

And you will, whether you go to South Africa, South Korea, or Southern France, feel such homesickness. You will find parts of yourself that you did not know existed. You will, at some point during your stay, reflect on the irony of traveling such far distances to only then have the clarity with which to see and get to know people and situations with whom and which you spent your whole life. You will tearfully wake up some mornings and wonder what possessed you to make such a journey. Then again, you will wake up others and wonder how you will be able to tear yourself away to return home. Understand that the desire to live abroad requires a certain mindset and if you have that mindset, I promise you this: if you can find it in yourself to make such a journey it is a decision that you will never come to regret.

I believe that life is a collection of contacts and experiences, and that everything in my life has prepared me for the moment at hand, just as this moment will prepare me for who I will be tomorrow. My experiences, both good and bad, come back to me as I attempt to tell other people of my living abroad experiences. I cannot explain how things as small as developing a friendship with the neighborhood fruit peddler and having to ride a bicycle to get everywhere changed my life in immeasurable ways but they did. For those who choose to go, I offer this advice: reach out instead of drawing in. Share your feelings with others you would be surprised to know how understanding they are. Keep your eyes and ears open, because there is a lesson in everything. And the journey is worth it all if you are able to find the lesson.


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