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 worlds 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.