Prior to coming to South Africa, my group had bimonthly meetings to learn the basics about apartheid and current politics in South Africa. I watched documentaries on my own time and was keeping up with local South African newspapers to prepare myself for the trip. I was looking forward to the first week of the trip, where we’d be visiting various museums, monuments, and speaking with anti-apartheid activists; I wanted to learn even more about the community before starting my internship. And I did. I learned more about the specifics of apartheid, and even more importantly, I learned how complicated and intricate the political system was in South Africa just 20 years ago. After a handful of these structured visits to various sites, I felt as though I knew more about the political and social systems in South Africa and that my newfound knowledge base would allow me to best serve the community.
Then we visited Albert Street School – a school with mostly Zimbabwean refugees who leave their families, friends, and homes at the early age of 12 to seek brighter futures. We walked into the dim-lit building, as the school could not afford to pay their electricity bill. As we walked up the stairs, children of all ages dressed in their uniforms were smiling around us. I spoke with a classroom of high school seniors. They loved hearing all about the US, our colleges and our goals. Then we started asking them about their goals and their thoughts on attending university. They explained that after high school, most students from that school end up on the streets even though they have a 100% pass rate for the end-of-high-school exam. When we asked why, their response did not surprise us; we already knew that they were of no means to afford going to expensive universities. We knew that the majority of children living in townships do not go on to higher education. However, never before did I feel students’ strong desire to succeed coupled with the helplessness of the realities in which they live. Remember how stressful it was to apply to college? Now imagine how near impossible it would be if you did not have the financial resources and counselors, teachers, peers, and family to support you. There was a suffocating feeling of discouragement trapped within the walls of the school.
It was hard to ignore the fact that boys overpowered the senior classroom we visited; the ratio of boys to girls was about 5 to 1. We asked why this was the case. One of the girls timidly shared that most of the girls dropped out of school because they got pregnant and cannot finish, while the fathers of their babies can still attend school. Before the trip I knew that a good portion of girls drop out of high school because they get pregnant. But I never before felt the effect that this has on women empowerment in the schools. I never felt the shame that the remaining girls had for their peers who did not finish school. I never felt the disheartenment that girls feel to reach their goals.
This is just one example from one day of the trip so far that made me realize how important it is to feel for the community you’re trying to help, instead of just knowing about them. When you learn about problems in a completely unique community on your Macbook Pro from your fully furnished home, you get the sense that you know what is best for them, you know how to help. It is only when you live in the community, when you talk to people living there, when you begin to feel for them that you understand the intricacies of the problems that they face every single day.
I have no clue how to help this community and frankly I don’t think that I’m qualified in any way to know how to help them. But I do feel for them, and I think feeling is the first step in working towards a better future.