To hit the nail on the head but to entirely miss the point

Every time I look out beyond the South African coastline, I can’t help but feel somewhat distracted. I find myself overlaying the hectic waves upon a static image of a textbook-perfect map and soon, something as simple as my geographical location leaves me baffled. With the globe splayed out in my minds eye I find that point of land protruding out  into the Atlantic and think – there I am on that tiny tip of a continent we talk so much about but know so little of.

Even after two months here I realize just how little I know. I still cannot pinpoint a South African accent. I still cannot mimic the Xhosa click. I still cannot recognize the eleven official languages much less list the country’s nine dividing provinces. I’m learning but it’s taking time – way more than I expected and way more than I have..

We’re always told the more you know the more you realize you don’t know – the more you do the more you realize has yet to be done. Working for an NGO in a country vastly different than my own, I find that these platitudes both hit the nail on the head and entirely miss the point.

Yes, the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. The more in-depth you go the more layers you uncover and nuances you unbind. At the same time, however,  sometimes a recognition of simply what meets the eye, a recognition of a shared need with no need for an explanation is enough.

I’ve learned how to sink my fingers into some pap and finish it off with a Black Label- sharing a meal. I’ve seen how music can bring people together without a single word – sharing a beat. I’ve heard a sermon with such conviction it made you think if not believe – sharing a moment.

Yes, the more you do the more you realize how much has yet to be done. Yet, when you’ve seen a sex worker defend her rights on the witness stand, a woman successfully divorce her abusive husband, a boy go to a museum for the first time, you realize that even if it’s just a drop, just a single drop in that ocean out there – together, these hectic waves hold great power.

What is DukeEngage?

 

 

Throughout my stay in Cape Town I have been asked multiple times what I am doing here. Most are surprised when I answer that I am working, and are even more surprised when they hear that I am working for a trade union. I think many people expect foreigners to be exchange students or volunteers. In truth, the DukeEngage program is actually more complex than just work or service, and I have learned so much more than I could have if I had just found a job here on my own. Being able to be in this city with such an incredibly insightful group of people has literally made my experience. They challenge me and get me to explore concepts and ideas I have never even thought of.

By hearing about their experiences, I am able to learn from what they are doing. The TAC (Treatment Action Campaign) girls have taught me about HPV, the WLC (Women’s Legal Center) girls about the decriminalization of sex work, team d6 (District Six Museum) organized an incredible event that allowed us to learn from the children in the area, the Sonke girls have taught me about gender based violence… I am not only learning from my own experiences, but I am also learning from theirs as well.

Our guest speakers have also allowed us to learn from each others’ workplaces. Each week, we invite a guest from work to come have dinner with us and discuss what they are passionate about. Each guest has brought up issues and questions that I had never heard before. By telling us about their lives and experiences, they are giving us a little taste of their perspective. Each guest has brought something new to the table. Mandy, from District Six, talked about her experiences fighting against apartheid and how she was inspired by Cuba. Sonia, a lawyer from the Women’s Legal Center, talked about the importance of taking on cases that could potentially change legislation by proving laws to be unconstitutional.

Even our daily conversations are stimulating. I love being able to hear about Charlotte’s experience in court, Rachel’s experience in Khayelitsha or Tunde’s afternoon with a homeless woman on Long Street.

I can honestly say that I have been truly “engaged” throughout my trip. I have shaped thoughts about both social and political issues, learned to apply lessons from history and gained valuable knowledge about South Africa and the world. I have been challenged, and this has taught me more about myself in the process.

However, a couple days ago, I realized that what I saw in the DukeEngage program was not exactly what was communicated on the website. One of my coworkers asked us to submit a quick summary of the program to be able to keep on file. I quickly got onto the DukeEngage website, honestly expecting to copy-paste the first paragraph of the mission statement to send it off before resuming my work. However, I found that the summary provided did not align with my experience at all. It was almost too embarrassing to submit because it made it seem like I was the one helping them, that I was providing assistance to them, when that is not the case at all.

Even though I am helping out with a couple projects, SACTWU has given me much more than I have given them. They have taught me about unionization, factories, worker’s rights and labor history. Through the Worker History Project, I have been able to learn about the country’s history through the personal stories of the shop stewards. They are the ones who have taught me, not the other way around. Even though I am aware that every Duke Engage experience is different, and that many are indeed focused on service, I still believe that the summary provided on the website is condescending. It is focused on “meeting community needs” and “providing meaningful assistance,” when it should be emphasizing how civic engagement and the community can actually assist the students. In the first paragraph of the overview of the program, the line “translating knowledge into service in unprecedented ways” stuck out to me. Is that not hinting that our year or two of undergraduate education is essentially superior to years of experience and often times higher education of our community partners? The list of “what the students have done” adds to this aura of superiority.

Even though I disagree with the information on the website, I do have to say that DukeEngage really does try to emphasize that we should make sure we are aware of the ethics involved with this type of program. Throughout DukeEngage Academy, we were told to learn from our sites and from our placements. This is why I was so struck by the content of the website. The program itself made me aware of the issue, but it is almost contradicting itself on the website.

Vaarwel, Suid-Afrika

My two months in South Africa have taught me so much. I came here expecting a rich and fulfilling experience, and I have received that and more. These last few weeks have been jam-packed and I’ve been able to take advantage of Cape Town more now that I am familiar with the city. While I am excited to end my journey, and to return home with a fresh worldview, I leave knowing that there is still much more to learn about this place.

Cultural Parallels

So much of what I saw in South Africa was parallel to things I see in the US daily. I had a discussion with a couple black co-workers yesterday about racism in South Africa, and I found that their observations as youth here are very similar to my observations back home. We talked about the racism that characterizes our generation, a type of racism that is not usually outward, but manifests in the form of assumptions and stereotypes. This is a type of racism that we can all be guilty of from time to time, and it is very easy to be unaware of it, and how it makes those around us feel. The other day, Sabrina and I were at the bus stop, and somehow we began to talk briefly on faith. I know her family is from the Middle East, and I asked if her family practiced Islam, to which the answer was no. Her family is Christian, and Lebanon, because of the Crusades, has a sizable Christian population. I asked my question out of my knowledge that many people of Arab descent are Muslim. Of course, I know not all Arabs are Muslim, but I began to think, where do you draw the line between stereotyping and asking a reasonable question based on what you believe to be a pattern? I know from polls that over 90% of blacks in the United States are Democrats. If I ask a black person if he is a Democrat, is that really stereotyping? And if he happens to be a Republican, is he justified in saying that I’m stereotyping when my assumption is based on prior knowledge?

One thing I discovered in the past week was that it is helpful to frame the parallel of race relations in the US and South Africa differently than I had before. The experience of South African blacks is more comparable in some ways to the Native American experience. And the experience of South African coloureds is in some ways more comparable to the experience of American blacks. In the way that Native Americans inhabited land that the whites wanted for settlement, so did indigenous blacks in the Eastern part of South Africa. They were later forced off these lands and relocated to homelands, or undesirable land that the white settlers didn’t really care for, just like Native Americans were forcibly removed form their lands and sent via the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma.

Indigenous blacks in South Africa were never enslaved (maybe there were a few isolated occasions, but for the most part). The coloureds, largely located in the Western part of South Africa, are the descendants of those whom the Dutch enslaved. The Dutch were told by the British and other European nations that they could not take black Africans as slaves, so they imported slaves from South and Southeast Asia, who mixed with the Coi-Coi people of the Western Cape, some indigenous blacks, and the Dutch themselves. They too were oppressed during apartheid years, and their social mobility was greatly limited, but not as much as black Africans.

I will acknowledge that the racial dynamic in America changes from city to city, but not as much as South Africa’s does. If I were a black South African, I would much prefer to live in Johannesburg or Durban than Cape Town. Johannesburg and Durban are cities where a lot more racial intermingling occurs. You see wealthy and middle class South African blacks in these cities. In Cape Town, South African blacks for the most part reside in townships away from the city. Within the city you primarily have whites, coloureds, and internationals. Many of the black people I met in Cape Town were not from South Africa. If I met a black South African, chances were he did not live in the city itself. The wealth in Cape Town has not quite made its way to blacks like it has in Johannesburg and Durban, and even in these cities, major class divisions are present, and the lower classes are almost exclusively black people.

The Spirit of a Nation

Last weekend, we attended District Six’s Night at the Museum, which was made possible by the tireless efforts of Corinne, Tunde, and Patty. The event was to teach children about social justice by promoting love and respect in the face of violence. We, as their colleagues, were made facilitators for this event, meaning that each of us was assigned to a group of kiddos for the weekend. I received the youngest squad, made up of Caitlyn, Thelia, Esam, and Ethan. We were the Golden Rascals. We performed a host of fun activities, made body maps and collages with symbolic images, read poetry, and just had a good old time. I loved how organic and creative my kids were. The potential within young children amazes me. It was great for them to be in a space where they could run around, and spew out whatever was on their incredible, uninhibited minds.

The spirit of Ubuntu here is wonderful, and South Africans take pride in this. Ubuntu means human kindness, or translates to “I am because you are.” The hospitality you find in South Africa makes you feel a sense of belonging wherever you go. Everyone is willing to help. I don’t know if I could have asked for a better internship than to be a SACTWU researcher for seven weeks. The staff was young and energetic. I never imagined an office environment feeling so much like a family, and I was very much a part of it. Virtually every shop steward and executive between Cape Town and Durban knows Justin and Sabrina, and that’s because the organization ensured that we had the fullest experience possible. They were organized, gave us clear instruction, and ample support. On top of that, they flew us to meetings in other parts of the country, paid for all kinds of adventures for us, showed us a fantastic time at Mzoli’s—a true South African braai (I’ve never seen a place so turnt up on a Sunday afternoon! Delicious meat!), and did so much more. My everlasting gratitude extends to all the inspiring individuals who we encountered through our work.

I also experienced Ubuntu everyday at the gym. Our gym was packed with these huge guys, drilling at their upper bodies. At the same time, you couldn’t have imagined a friendlier atmosphere. Everyone was extremely considerate with sharing equipment and taking turns (even though they didn’t always rack up the weights). We got hi-fives and handshakes all day long. Tunde regularly received compliments on his figure and guys asked him about his workout routine. We met some good friends at the gym, like Junior, with whom we had daily conversation.

One day when we were returning from the middle of nowhere, Bob got not one, but two flat tires. Frances took half the group into the nearest town while the rest of us stayed on the side of the road with the rental car. We put up our reflecting triangle, and stood there, waiting for someone to assist us. We watched cars speed past us, knocking over our triangle on several occasions, none stopping for us. Frances came back but she had to drive past us to turn around, and it took about ten minutes. In those ten minutes, a rickety old truck with about six children in the bed pulled over on the side of the road in front of us. An elderly man came out of the driver’s seat and started yelling toward us in Afrikaans, asking if we were ok. We were unable to successfully communicate with him, but I knew how to say “good” and “thank you very much.” He eventually realized that we didn’t speak Afrikaans, and that we seemed to have the situation under control, so he bid us farewell, and all the kids waved goodbye to us. It was one of those moments that restored my faith in humanity. That exchange, which occurred at the very moment before we received help, spoke volumes to all of us who were present.

All in all, my DukeEngage experience has been so rewarding. I’m truly blessed that I was given this opportunity, and I hope to apply what I have learned this summer in different settings throughout the rest of my life.

 

Farewell, Cape Town

If you asked me whether I learned any life-changing skills or lessons during my DukeEngage experience, my first instinct would be to say no. My internship this summer did not teach me how to analyze data, conduct research, or perform technical skills. My volunteer work at my NGO didn’t change lives in concrete or moving ways. But if you asked me whether or not I am the same person as I was at the beginning of the summer, my answer would also be no.

Even though I have very little to show from the work I did at the District Six Museum, I believe that my DukeEngage summer gave me so much more than the typical summer internship experience. I learned extensively and deeply about the history, politics, and problems of South Africa not only through books, museums, and the wisdom of my on-site professors, but also through tangible figures who helped change the course of history through their courageous efforts. This intensive knowledge background prepared me tremendously for the remainder of my time here and was vital to my current understanding of South Africa and its people.

The other lessons I learned were a product of my experiences at the District Six Museum and from living day-to-day life in Cape Town. Navigating cultural differences such as working styles and communication expectations was often challenging and revealed the more unglamorous angle of cultural exchange. My obsession with planning was often brushed to the side, as unpredictable circumstances forced me to be flexible under pressure. As much of my work at the museum involved organizing and facilitating workshops for large groups of children interested in human rights, I was also able to walk in the shoes of a teacher. These moments compelled me to be patient and understand the value of compromise. They also convinced me that being an educator is quite possibly the most difficult and simultaneously crucial jobs on earth.

Compromise and patience proved to be equally important outside of my internship. Living in close quarters with ten other Duke students was like living college life under a microscope. I did not know a single person in the group before this trip and was intensely nervous about how we would all get along, considering we spent every waking minute together. Although we often engaged socially with local South Africans, the vast majority of our time was spent with each other. This made cooperation and a positive group dynamic essential to the experience overall. I am beyond grateful for the group I spent the summer with because we all learned how to appreciate compromise and the value of making decisions that benefited the group as a whole. I will be leaving Cape Town with some true friends.

As for whether I made a difference here? That is the toughest question to answer. Sometimes I found my efforts at work futile—often the children we worked with were difficult to manage and made actual knowledge transmission and intellectual discussion challenging. The office work that we did at the museum wasn’t exactly inspirational. However, in small ways I think my colleagues and I did have impact. Through our Night at the Museum event we provided a safe space for primary school children to learn about human rights and conflict. Even though they were running around the building and squealing half the time, the simple presence of eleven American group facilitators was valuable for their cultural engagement. (I cannot thank my DukeEngage group enough for spending their last weekend in South Africa sleeping on the floor of the District Six Museum with thirty tireless children.) This relationship alone exposed both the participants and the Duke facilitators to myriad new ideas about the world they live in. Beyond Night at the Museum, “Making a difference” was not, however, by any means the focus of this experience. Instead, my DukeEngage summer allowed me to absorb knowledge and forge relationships in ways that would never be possible on Duke’s campus. What I have learned here in Cape Town has excited me about the challenges facing modern South Africa and has primed me to recognize similar issues that are equally present but not necessarily as obvious back home. Although I absolutely did not change the world this summer, living and working in a different part of the world definitely changed me.

Human

What does it mean to be human?

When you google the definition of the word “human” or “human being” a variety of results fill page after page. There is not one single definition for these words. It appears that every one feels that the word means something to them, but there is no consensus on its meaning.

As I think about the last 8 weeks in South Africa, the idea of humanity and acceptance continues to come to mind. I have never thought that people around the world were different; I have always truly believed we all have similarities that connect us and that we are all equal as humans with the same rights. Yet, coming into a new country, especially to a place where there are so many different cultures and people living together, it was easy to think of myself as different from the people around me because of different traditions, heritage and culture than I grew up with. To be clear, I do believe that we are all different individuals, each with our own aspirations, strengths, weaknesses and qualities. However, groups of people seem to easily fall into a category, falling into groups that are either self-selected or imposed and therefore making it easy to see themselves as different from others.

Throughout this trip, I have come again and again to the realization that we are all human. And although that may seem like a broad realization and quite blatant, I think that it is a simple statement that more people could spend time thinking about. We are all human, and therefore we are all connected in some way through our humanity. This connection should lead us to be there for others, not to fight others, should lead us to think that what we are doing affects others, not to live in complete disregard of others, should lead us to be aware of others, and not just ignore life around us.

To illustrate my point, I am going to briefly talk about a few snapshots of the many moments on this trip.

A group of us had the incredible opportunity to meet and hang out with a group of highschool students who are part of a local NGO called Yenza led by Czerina Patel who works for Sonke Gender Justice. We spent the morning discussing everything from politics to what we were interested in studying. There were a lot of differences between the Yenza and Duke groups, and yet we were all together, treating each other like any other group of young adults would be. Although these discussions were really interesting and many times quite profound, the most beautiful part of the day was when we started talking about music. Czerina started playing Adele’s song Someone Like You and immediately the Yenza students started singing. The Duke students quickly joined in, many of us surprised by how well we knew the song. We all belted the song together, in unison, smiling and swaying together. It was an incredible moment, where I really felt like we became one group, where everyone realized that we are all human.

The walk to and from work through Cape Town is another one of my favorite things about our stay in Cape Town. It is one of my most reflective moments of the days, whether it is the morning and every one is starting to open up their shops and start their day, or whether it is the evening when the streets are more crowded, people are going back home and tourists are ready for their afternoon snack and drink. What strikes me about these walks is that I think about how much I feel like I am experiencing humanity while I walk. Every thing about the walk is something that could be found in other parts of the world. We walk by many people every day including those who are homeless, young children, teenagers and elderly, alike. It often makes me think about what put me in the position that I am in. Asking why different people end up in different places in their lives. Making me question what I am doing with my life. I love when we walk down different streets because for the first few steps I feel like I am walking into a different community, and then after a few minutes, I again start thinking about our humanity that connects us all. I think about what makes us different, yet similar.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we should remember that we are all human, remember that the people around us are human, and think about what that means to each of us.

Shoutout to South Africa!

For my final blog I will do a list of shoutouts

Shoutout to Calvin for being the best tour guide and driver anyone could ask for. Your insight on the history of South Africa has made my experience that much more meaningful!

Shoutout to Bill for being the grandfather figure of the group. You are one of the wisest people that I have ever met!

Shoutout to the weird guy at the freedom charter monument who played the recorder with his nose!

Shoutout to Calvin’s wife, who gave me insight on student activism during apartheid!

Shoutout to Patrick the security guard for being reliable and kind to us in Melville!

Shoutout to Noor giving us the information to better understand the current social and economic problems in South Africa!

Shoutout to Allister Sparks for your wise words on the class struggles in South Africa!

Shoutout to Dennis Goldberg for sharing your experiences and story with us!

Shoutout to Bob for being the fun uncle figure of the group! You always encouraged us to explore Cape Town!

Shoutout to Frances for being a great psych coordinator!

Shoutout to Adrian for giving us the best service at the Daily Deli! Despite being a little awkward at times

Shoutout to Clemence for dealing with us coming in everyday and for laughing at Adrian!

Shoutout to Ryan at Yourstruly for being the first local friend I made in Cape Town!

Shoutout to guy at the Power and the Glory for making me laugh everyday!

Shoutout to the compliment guy outside of Truth Coffee for giving the greatest compliments!

Shoutout to Michael for always being happy in the Bed and Breakfast!

Shoutout to Annie for being the sweetest housekeeping lady!

Shoutout to Dieter the priest to talking to me and Justin everyday!

Shoutout to Mandy for a great boss! Although you were sometimes perplexing, you made my district six museum experience memorable!

Shoutout to Zahra for always being nice to the interns!

Shoutout to Nikki for helping us with the funding for the A Night at the Museum!

Shoutout to Bonita for helping us advertise for the A Night at the Museum!

Shoutout to Tina for being the eccentric lady in the office!

Shoutout to Edith for being a nice cleaning lady around the office!

Shoutout to Koe’sister lady for having the best Koe’sisters in all of Cape Town!

Shoutout to Norman for being a jolly old maintenance guy!

Shoutout to Chris for being the coolest lady in the office!

Shoutout to Ross for showing me a good time in Cape Town!

Shoutout to Lucky for showing me the Daniel Sturridge dance!

Shoutout to Levi giving me the rugby socks, and for driving me to Claremont!

Shoutout Luke for introducing me to all of your friends from RBHS, and for giving me a ride home!

Shoutout to Team D6 for always sticking together and for being the best team of DukeEngage!

Shoutout to Edgar for showing me all of those back exercises!

Shoutout to Junior! I loved our conversations in the gym!

Shoutout to Justin for being my man on this trip! These girls ain’t loyal!

Shoutout to Sab for laughing at Justin with me!

Shoutout to Charlotte for being the older sister of the group!

Shoutout to Lauren for being my go-to when we went out!

Shoutout to Corrine for being the social chair of the group! #TeamD6

Shoutout to Patty for always bringing the fire! #TeamD6

Shoutout to Rachel Z for giving me a lot of insight on women and gender equality!

Shoutout to Jenna for always being independent in your thoughts and actions!

Shoutout to Rachel H for being the mom of the group! And for being so chill!

Shoutout to Fede for being the most caring and thoughtful of the group!

Thanks to everyone who donated to A Night at the Museum! The event was awesome and the kids were great!

Contemplating “Gender Equality”

This summer I interned at the Women’s Legal Centre, and I thought about feminism and women’s rights more than I ever have in my entire life. I chose to intern at the Women’s Legal Centre because of my interest in law, social justice and human rights. Before this summer, I didn’t even actively consider myself a feminist (largely due to the stigma associated with the word “feminist” among my peers and my own misunderstanding of what the word “feminist” truly means). I had always believed that men and women should have equal rights, but the topic was not one which I often pondered. I fortunately have never had an experience in which I was discriminated against due to my gender and I did not feel that my gender would impact my future success or lifestyle.

This summer has truly opened my eyes to a whole new branch of social activism: the campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. While South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, I feel that many of the realizations regarding women’s rights and gender equality which I have come to while working at the WLC are just as relevant within the United States. For instance, one of the research projects I did at the WLC was on the legal rights of female domestic partners who were separating from their male partners after years of performing household labor, or “informal sector” work, and raising the children. Such a separation clearly poses a women’s rights issue: the male partner is about to walk away with his salary and all of his savings while the woman does not have any source of income or money saved up. This scenario also occurs frequently in the United States.

Previously when I contemplated women’s rights under the law, I believed that women and men should be completely equal. However, after spending the summer at the WLC, I find the term “gender equality” to be somewhat misleading because it does not acknowledge the differences between the sexes and the different accommodations which need to be made for each gender. The woman in the aforementioned scenario was naturally placed into her role in the partnership, in which she stayed at home and took care of her kids, because she is female. As culture dictates, she is to raise the children and perform domestic duties because she is a woman; furthermore, she is the partner biologically impaired by the birth. Do equal rights in this scenario translate into gender equality, or does the law have to go above and beyond to protect women and guarantee an equal playing field?

Wrapping Up

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience.” “It’s going to be the greatest adventure.” “The New York times voted Cape Town the best place to travel in 2014!” “It’s going to be life changing.” 

These were just a few of the phrases I heard over and over again as I described my summer plans with a smile and a sigh of gratitude. I found myself passing over this notion as a cliché – have a life changing experience in Africa.  I arrived excited to learn the country’s rich history, looking forward to the beauty and intrigued by the possibilities of an internship at Sonke, a place I admittedly knew very little about.  Yet I continued to view “life changing” as a bit of an exaggeration, refusing to be one more volun-tourist #InstagrammingAfrica and preparing to write my college essay about my epiphanies in Africa.    

I struggled quite a bit when I got here with all of these notions (reference my first post for proof).  I loathed the idea of being the classic American in Africa, being much more of a nuisance to the community than any sort of help.  While this is a challenge I continue to be mindful of, I think that I wrongly conflated the ideas of being a harmful tourist and having a life changing opportunity, perhaps simply because I often hear the two comments going hand in hand.  As I’m beginning to pack bags and say goodbyes, I’m realizing that I’ve simultaneously been an American tourist and a presence and positive addition to work at Sonke.  I’ve been able to gain from my internship immensely while contributing to their work as well, not one or the other as I had feared.  And I can confidently and unabashedly say that I feel like my last eight weeks in South Africa have changed my life.

Of all of my experiences in South Africa, I can genuinely say that the two I am most thankful for is my time at Sonke and the group of Dukies that I have spent practically every waking moment with.  My time at Sonke has been so much richer and inspiring than I ever expected an internship experience could be.  I came to Sonke hoping to “do something with policy, or law, or health maybe” – a very appropriate and not at all surprising set of goals considering my academic trajectory of indecisiveness (contrary to all those who told me I would have to start making up my mind in college, Duke has let me make up my own jumble of a major).  It suffices to say I didn’t have much of a direction, and this could not have helped me more.  Throughout my time at Sonke, I became immersed in advocating for the decriminalization of sex work, compiling case studies on gender-based violence, writing articles about men training programs in communities and correctional facilities, analyzing the proposed male involvement in health policies across Africa and writing lobbying letters to South African Parliament in reference to the Joint Commission on HIV and AIDS. Somehow, despite my horribly vague goals, I seem to have found a way to meet all of them. 

I cannot adequately express how grateful I am to everyone at Sonke for welcoming me into your community, for always being open, ready and excited to get to know me and to teach me about your life and your work.  I need to especially thank Czerina, Marlise and Vuyiseka, whose mentorship, guidance and trust have inspired and empowered me as a student, a young professional and a woman.     

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Sonke-TAC with Czerina!

I could not be more grateful to the whole Duke group that I have spent my last eight weeks with.  They are all incredibly talented, driven and impressive people, and I am inspired by every one of them.  They have shown me bravery, from their excitement for the possibility of scaling a mountain to Rachel’s new blog, in which she chronicles conversations over coffee with someone living or working on the street. (Everyone needs to read this: http://rachelhennein.wordpress.com/).  They have highlighted ways of looking at the world that I would never have considered (shout out to Jenna for consistently challenging me and teaching me so many different ways of understanding people, our actions and our duties), have inspired me to become more confidently vocal and opinionated about social issues (thank you to Sabrina for helping me see that the Facebook politics I always scorn are actually one of the most influential mechanisms in mobilizing and educating our generation) and have shared their own stories of the joys and struggles of their own lives.  They have taught me that the “perfect” Duke student that I often strive to be is not flawless, but is thriving in spite of and because of their idiosyncrasies. Thank you so much to you all.   

In particular, I need to express my utmost gratitude to the two fearless leaders of DukeEngage Cape Town, Bill Chafe and Bob Korstad.  Thank you for putting together a program that is not merely about one summer of service, but an educational experience that allows us to return with a different perspective on our history, our world and our roles in it.  While I cannot wait to share all that our first week in Johannesburg and every reflection session, speaker and day trip we have taken in Cape Town has taught me about South African history, I am also inspired to debate, discuss and dive further into American history and culture, current social and political issues and conflicts, and the essence of humanity in general.  I no longer want to be a passive citizen, but one that is informed, if not active, in all that is happening around me. I know I will keep this sentiment with me for the rest of my life.

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So yes, contrary to whatever I promised myself I would or would not say, this summer has changed my life.  I leave South Africa with exponentially more understanding, and consequently, more questions than I had when I arrived. My work with Sonke and with this group has reminded me to challenge everything, even those opinions that I feel certain of.  Whether it is a social issue, a world conflict or even my understanding of morality, I have learned to entertain to differing opinions and allow them to mold or affirm my own beliefs. I’m learning to be cautious to not allow my steadfast beliefs to blind me to the complexities of issues. While I fervently believe women should have ownership of their bodies, sex work is not necessarily an exploitation as I once thought, but instead a source of economic empowerment and autonomy for many.  By believing that race should not be a distinctive quality, I have contributed to an epidemic in America of political correctness, a tactic stemming from fear of “crossing the line”, and in doing so, miss the opportunities for real, and very necessary, dialogues.

Throughout my trip, I realized more and more how important it was for me to make the experience my own – speaking up to make sure I could work on the projects that were most aligned to my skills and goals, choosing activities and events that I am comfortable with even if it meant breaking away from the group, and challenging myself to disconnect with family and friends in the states and live here in the now.  If I am never lucky enough to return to Cape Town, I know that I have experienced this city to the fullest, and am so grateful that I learned more and more the important of taking ownership of my own experience. I hope I will be able to extend this lesson into my semester in Paris and beyond.  My goal going forward is to do even more things that scare me, whether it is continuously conquering my irrational fear of heights or becoming increasingly comfortable combatting the fear of missing out to preserve my own adventures.

I have learned so much about human rights, health, gender relations, the law and how they all fit together.  I have learned more about living and jiving with people, and had the joys of making truly lasting friendships. I have experienced the dangers of travel. I have been constantly reminded of why I am so lucky to be a student amongst a community of people that are always questioning and inspired to debate and learn more about the world and one another.  These people, projects and experiences truly have taught me to question, to debate, to wonder.  While the ease of answering “what do you want to be when you grow up” has a strongly negative correlation with the time left in “growing up”, DukeEngage has left me confident and passionate about so many things and I cannot wait to see where they take me. 

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Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean from Camps Bay Beach at Sunset

English 101

I started learning English when I was 3. I went to a school in Peru where the vast majority of my classes were in English – Geography, History, Biology, Physics – you name it. I was very blessed to have this type of bilingual education. At school, my teachers corrected our essays with dedication, making sure we did not make any subject verb agreement errors or that we used the right prepositions (although, I must confess I still struggle with ins and ons). I don’t know how I would have survived at Duke without them.

Regardless, my English is not perfect. And neither is my Spanish. Whenever I speak in Spanish, an English word will come to mind faster than the Spanish one I am looking for. Sometimes phrases like “Qué awkward!” (How awkward) will slip through my mouth. So, whenever people ask me what language I feel most comfortable with, I honestly think my answer would be Spanglish. I can’t help it.

However, I know that I am more fluent in Spanish. So whenever I go back home, I am excited to go to the comfort of talking incredibly fast, while others have to remind me to slow down, that there’s no rush. To the comfort of knowing that I can confidently talk about absolutely anything without making a long pause to think of the next word I’m going to say. To the comfort of being able to make an official phone call without worrying about my accent. But when I speak English, I know I am putting myself in a vulnerable position because I am prone to make mistakes.

Many South Africans do not have the linguistic comfort that I enjoy when I go back to my country. Many of them are not fluent in English. I didn’t see it as a problem until, along with my fellow District Six interns, I participated in a Constitutional Literacy Camp for high school students. For a significant portion of the participants English was not their first language. And this program, which involved a moot court competition, was a big challenge for them. I remember being in a group with five girls, where only one of them would stay quiet during the discussions while the others eloquently shared their ideas. When the facilitator encouraged this girl to contribute to the discussion, she opened her mouth and said something that was unintelligible for most of us. Undoubtedly, her mother tongue was not English

Mandy, the Head of the Education Department at the museum, made an announcement during ConCamp that really resonated with me. She told the participants that it didn’t matter if their first language was not English; that if they did not know how to express an idea in English, they should say it in their own language, and someone else would help with the translation. Mandy’s progressive announcement leveled the playing field for everyone in the room. But how many people, like Mandy, will take the time to understand the quality of her ideas, even if they are expressed in a different language? To what extent will English proficiency determine the type of job this girl will end up with or the type of wage she will earn?

In theory, South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. However, in practice, as I have seen during my stay in Cape Town, it would be hard to survive a day in the city without being able to speak in English. Having 11 official languages is the way in which South Africa says sorry to all of the oppressed during apartheid. It validates their language, creating that safe space, that comfort that I feel when I go back home.

I really admire South Africa for its efforts to celebrate diversity in every sense of the word – racially, sexually, and linguistically. I have heard many South Africans proudly say that there is no other country in the world with 11 official languages. And they have every reason to be proud of this. I just wonder what the future will hold for South Africa’s linguistic diversity amidst the forces of globalization that are adopting English as a lingua franca.

Home-bound

This summer I decided that I was going to read the Bible everyday. I started with the gospel of Matthew (the first book in the New Testament). Jesus repeatedly talks about impoverished and homeless people in Matthew. Naturally, I began to see impoverished people in a different light, especially the homeless people who I see everyday on the streets while walking to work. I began to have thoughts about the stigma against homeless people and how to combat that. Then, at one of our weekly reflection sessions with the group, I had the idea to start a project where I invite a homeless person or someone working on the streets to coffee or tea with me.

A couple of days later, after much thought about my idea, I was still unsure about starting the project. What would I get out of it? More importantly, how would the homeless person be impacted by it? With these thoughts in my mind, I began to read the next passage that I left off on in my Bible. I happened to start off on Matthew 20:29. In this section, Jesus heals two blind men. The passage is as follows:

29 As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”

34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

The two blind men can be interpreted to be homeless, as they “were sitting by the roadside.” When they asked Jesus for help, “the crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet.” Isn’t this how some people treat the homeless? By ignoring them and dehumanizing them? Instead of ignoring them himself, “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and follow him.”

After studying this passage, I immediately thought of a blind woman who sings for money everyday outside of my office building. I knew that God was calling me to start this project. The next day I spent my lunch break with the blind woman, Sylvia.

Sylvia and her son Amos

Sylvia and her son Amos

Sylvia is a strong mother of two married to a man who suffers from a debilitating mental illness. As a result, she is the main provider for her household. She talked to me about the many challenges she has in her life, but also talked about the way in which she copes with these challenges – her faith in Jesus Christ. After speaking with Sylvia, I decided to start a blog about these amazing people so that others will also be able to experience their stories.

I plan to continue this project while I’m abroad in the fall and when I come back to Durham in the spring. I think this is why Duke spends thousands of dollars on each student to send them to a new community: so that students can experience new ideas in a new setting and bring these ideas and experiences back to the US.

If you would like to read more about Sylvia’s story as well as others, visit my blog at: rachelhennein.wordpress.com