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.



I’ve never been to a criminal court. I’ve never been to any court for that matter. Sitting beside my boss I feel like I’m intruding upon a private affair. An odd sense of relief hits me once the judge walks in. As he strides past the pews to the front, the security guard muffles to no one in particular, “Please rise.” I shift my weight forward to follow suit with those standing up around me and am surprised.

I never knew judges still wore long robes to court. I never knew that the accused remain a floor below until their hearing. I never knew a police officer accompanies each of thm, one-by-one, up the stairs to take the stand. I never knew. I take it all in and soon realize, I’m the only one left standing. Embarrassed, I sit with more abruptness than grace and the proceedings continue without pause in Xhosa.

With each punctuating click I kick myself over my embarrassing claim to so-called “conversational Spanish” and think, 11 official languages in this country and I speak but a single one. Turning my attention to vague hand gestures and vacant head nods, I lean back into my chair and zone out until a lingering silence demands my attention.

The accused turns back to face the audience and the weight of a question rests upon our shoulders. Even I, unaware of what was asked, feel its weight. My boss whispers, “The judge has asked if anyone has come to pay her bail of 300 Rand.” Silence. I see the young woman scan the audience, indifferently, as if told to do so, not as if she’s actually looking for someone. It seems she already knows – no one is there. The judge scribbles a note and the security guard accompanies the young woman back into police custody. My boss signals for us to leave and once in the hallway I ask,

So without bail what happens?

She’ll be held in prison for the next 5 months. Then, her trial will be brought before the judge again in November.

It sinks in; 300 rand is the equivalent of $30. For this, she will spend almost half a year of her life behind bars. Regardless of what she’s being accused of, this is painful to watch.

We always talk about loosely defined terms such as “disadvantaged” or “vulnerable” populations and in that moment it became all too clear. These labels refer not only to a lack of financial resources but also to a lack of substantial social support networks to lean on -People who lack not only a savings account but also a family, a partner, someone to turn to. In a country where a quarter of women face unemployment, the fact that she could not afford her bail did not surprise me. The fact that no one was even there for her in court broke my heart.

“We cannot blame Apartheid for being tardy.”

South Africa feeds me inspiration but fills me with a bitterness that has surprised me. On the one hand, the government has successfully reorganized and redistributed the country’s political power since the 1990’s. On the other, it has inherited a segregated pattern of residential living across the country and has left in place the economic structure of the apartheid era.

Even looking at the current government I feel torn. Although I see its blatant corruption and undeniable incompetencies, I also recognize that it has indeed provided many services previously unreached and established many rights and freedoms previously unfathomed.

With this growing sense of uncertainty – this squeezing of myself into a position of being the outside observer of an internal struggle- I find myself at a place where the vague term of what it means to “engage” finally holds meaning. I feel myself grappling with a sense of dissonance and trying to ground myself simply by being present.

As I reflect on the current state of things and try to understand the nuances of the political landscape here, it hits me that the governing party of South Africa, the ANC, is it’s own worst enemy- yet not in the way you would expect. Not in the sense that the ANC’s shady loan schemes and numerous counts of fraud will undermine its legitimacy. Not quite. Rather, due to the fact that 20 years ago the ANC promised a better life for all the people of South Africa – black, white, coloured, male, female, citizen, refugee, Zulu and Xhosa alike. In doing so, it constructed an expectation gap it’s now struggling to fill.

So while some see the widespread restlessness and growing discontent of the people as a sign of failure or a lack of progress I am not too sure. Perhaps it signifies not that things are getting worse, but rather, that people are beginning to recognize that they deserve better.

When I mentioned growing frustration over the vast wealth disparities I see on a daily basis, I was quickly countered by a born-and-raised Captonian. Coming from a first-hand experience point of view she explained, “You see those small shacks selling goods on the side of the road and criticize the government for the lack of economic opportunities but you don’t realize that in the past you wouldn’t have even been allowed to have that small stand. What seems like nothing to someone from overseas is actually a huge sign of progress.”

The more I learn about the past of South Africa the more I do appreciate how far this country has come, but how long can this be the frame of reference. With the new “born free generation” coming of age, there has been a rift. I can see the dialogue shifting away from a remembrance of how it used to be towards a conversation of how it should be.

Nelson Mandela himself spoke of this need to look forward as opposed to back when he explained, “South Africans have no concept of time and this is also why we can’t solve poverty and social problems… It’s now 10 years since the fall of the Apartheid government and we cannot blame Apartheid for being tardy.” With time ticking, Mandela asked South Africa to no longer use the past as an excuse for the present but to move forward.

He himself transitioned with his country in not only his leadership style and tactics but also in his day-to-day dress. As a man known for always being impeccably dressed, Mandela began to wear loose fitting designed t-shirts in his later years. When one boy asked why, he responded, “I was in prison so long, I want to feel freedom.”

So while it seems that, according to their Constitution at least, South Africans enjoy even more extensive freedoms than we do in the United States, without the immediate needs of adequate housing, basic medicines and clean drinking water being met in many regions- have they truly felt the freedom their Constitution affords?


But it’s part of their culture…

Every time I travel, I’m struck by how judgmental I am. Why are those children playing unattended on that busy street corner- how dangerous. Why are those men drunk by noon – how irresponsible. Why must those women cover their heads – how hot.

It comes down to different circumstances, different socioeconomic factors, different social norms. I know – there’s different religious practices, family dynamics, employment rates, day-to-day expectations, but I find myself clumping these factors, squishing these reasons, under the blanket phrase:

“It’s their culture.”

With that, I feel small-minded, intolerant, ignorant – in a word:  American, for my quick judgment. Trying to distance myself from the unabashed western-centric perspective that has saturated my upbringing and slanted my coursework, I take a step back. I not only try to understand and accept the difference but I find myself becoming protective. I trumpet a solid defense of each person’s right to carry on their own traditions, employ their own judgments, and rely on their own values and rules-of-thumb.

Yet, upon further reflection I begin to wonder: is this an explanation or more of a simplistic excuse? When does infringing upon a cultural practice become a moral imposition and when does failing to do so become a human rights violation?

With this question in mind, I think first of the virginity tests that continue to surge in popularity as a part of the Zulu culture and then the more brutal example of genital mutilation. Beyond these extremes stand tamer shades of grey, however, such as, polygamy. The current South African President, Jacob Zuma, currently has four wives. He holds himself as a proud polygamist following a Zulu tradition.

Thus, the line blurs between right and wrong. On the one hand, illegalizing polygamy stands as an act of moral imposition that disregarding the right to preserve one’s culture. On the other, polygamy contravenes a women’s right to equality. The tried-and-true mantra respect all cultures therefore warrants the question- at what cost.

Ultimately, the values of cultural awareness and sensitivity hold merit, yet they imply a state of coexistence that, to me, rests upon a false sense of space between cultures and distance between people

Although passively respecting cultural differences and taking a “live and let live approach” sounds ideal, a passive cultural sensitivity must give way to an active cultural responsiveness.

Engaging with another culture in a manner that goes beyond simply recognizing differences involves not blind acceptance but nitty-gritty “bargaining”. This term speaks to the back and forth of a negotiation where each side has both something to gain and something to lose. It aptly suggests an environment of tension, yes, but also the potential that both parties will walk away better off.

To view cultural encounters as bargains indicates that although cultures are likely to clash, it does not necessarily have to be a violent collision. If it involves some give and take rather than one culture dominating another, it can be a beneficial compromise and coming together.

Placing another culture in conversation with your own involves both looking inward and outward. To learn about another culture demands that you reevaluating our own. Yet, when should we judge people by our own values and standards and when should we place our judgments aside? For example, in a medical context, seeing that we believe in and value Western medicine, would offering subpar treatment out of a need to respect the culture of another be disrespecting our own?

How do we respect cultural differences while avoiding an “anything goes” attitude? While we must recognize that what is considered right and wrong is culture-specific, we must also avoid unconditional support for all opinions and life choices. Ultimately, to fight the assumption that our perspective is the perspective, we must stand at cultural points of tangency not with relativism, but with humility.