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.



South Africa has an incredibly progressive constitution- with it come rights such as the right to dignity, equality before the law, universal rights to basic education, the right to basic provisions such as housing and the right to healthcare for all. One of TAC’s (Treatment Action Campaign) missions is to ensure and advocate that the government provides equal and fair healthcare access for every one across the country. Unfortunately, although this is explicitly stated in the constitution, in reality this is not occurring in South Africa.

Discrimination can be seen everywhere. The horrors of what apartheid created – a society of inequalities – is still ever present in the current South Africa. Although all are told they have the dignity of being humans, if one is not treated as human, do they truly have this promised dignity? One way that one could easily lose the sense of dignity is through illness and sickness. The healthcare system should treat you with respect. The terrifying truth however, is that a huge percentage of people are not treated as humans when receiving treatment or being attended to at hospitals and clinics. Some people are able to receive state of the art care – as tour guides love informing us, South Africa is home to the first successful heart transplant. However, other people will not even make it to the clinics because of a variety of complicated reasons. Frustration with the health care system, tiredness of being treated as unequal because of a disease, fear of the stigma that people receive, even in a hospital, all deter people from receiving treatment. The difference in the level of the healthcare that people receive in South Africa is absurd.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an anti-apartheid activist, Jane, who invited our group into her and her husband’s home. In addition to talking to us about integrating a church in District 6, and what it was like to live during Apartheid, she discussed modern day South Africa. She talked about visiting a friend at a hospital in Cape Town that she had never been to before. She came back shaken by the visit, stating that there were bullet holes through the building, the infrastructure was failing, the sanitary conditions were appalling and that there were not even enough doctors attending to the patients. She kept repeating that this was happening near other hospitals that are fully functioning and doing extremely well. I was really moved by hearing her speak about the discrepancies she observed in different hospitals and it got me thinking even more deeply about health disparities around the world.

Not only is there discrimination based on socio-economic lines, there is discrimination based on gender. This is especially prominent in certain illnesses such as HIV and HPV. The lack of attention that it is receiving is shocking. The ratio of the risk of developing cervical cancer is 1:39 for women in South Africa. The already gendered HIV endemic (were twice as many women as men are living with HIV/AIDS than men) has another complicated layer to it for women– HPV and cervical cancer. The second most common cancer in South Africa is both preventable and easily detectable. Why are so many women dying from this? Why is HPV not talked about as frequently as HIV and TB in South Africa? Why is there such a backlash against the vaccination against the most common types of HPV, which would protect one from getting a life threatening and devastating cancer? Why aren’t more women getting tested for HPV?

One of the reasons that this is despicable is because there are simple HPV tests, such as PAP smears, which detect cervical cancer, and a vaccination against some HPV strains, which cause cervical cancer. Unfortunately, there are several problems with these two simple solutions. First of all, PAP smear test results take up to 6 weeks in the clinic, while in the private sector they take a maximum of 4 days. Furthermore, women are afraid of doing PAP smears because many of them do not know what they are and how they work, and they are not always treated well at these clinics. The HPV vaccine is also problematic. The vaccine is administered at schools, since it targets both boys and girl starting at 9 years old. Parents and educators are pushing back against this, because they are afraid the vaccine then makes their children more likely to have sex. In addition, this vaccine is available only to the students who attend school. This means that many children who live in rural areas who struggle to get to a school are unable to receive the vaccine. Given that this vaccine has been proven to prevent cervical cancer, that the PAP smear is an easy and painless test, and that there are new inventions, such as David Walmer’s cerviscope which detects cervical cancer, the number of women who die from cervical cancer should be dramatically lower that it is in South Africa.

HPV and cervical cancer can be prevented, treated and cured if detected at an early stage. This must be given time and attention in the health care system in South Africa. Women need to have access to information about this disease, as well as prevention and treatment options. Increasing health awareness, improving the healthcare system, and making sure that people with any type of illness are treated equally and with dignity are essential steps to reducing health care disparities in South Africa.

Speaker Session – July 10th

Last Thursday, we had the pleasure to have dinner with Mandy, Head of the Education Department at the District Six Museum. She shared with us her stories about growing up during Apartheid, what led her to be an activist. As a school teacher she managed to awaken her students to the horrors of the regime, risking her own life for the anti-apartheid movement. It was inspiring to hear her speak, and we were so glad that she was able to come! Here are some pictures from the evening.


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The Basics

This summer I’m working in the national office for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), whose mission is to ensure that everyone living with HIV/AIDS can lead a healthy life and that the health care system provides everyone equal and necessary support and treatment. TAC is based in seven different provinces, such as Western Cape, Free State, Limpopo and Gauteng. The fieldwork includes a variety of activities, such as ensuring that people are educated about the importance of always taking their antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), the significance of doing PAP smears, and tackling the stigma around talking about sex, contraceptives and reproductive rights. It also partakes in advocacy campaigns, which tackle issues such as a critical lack of basic supplies including gloves, and gender based violence. Two of the departments that I have observed during the past two weeks are important to the success of TAC – Resource Mobilization and Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL). Resource Mobilization writes the grants and ensures that money is still coming in to support the many activities of TAC, while MEL aggregates, captures and analyses the data that is coming in from the field. I have had the opportunity to work in both of these departments and I have learned about the incredible amount of work done by TAC. I have realized how important it is for any organization to have a well trained and hard working group of dedicated people who allow the field work to go smoothly and for accurate information about TAC activities to be aggregated and shared.


I often think about what it means for me to be working in the national office of an NGO. I don’t have a lot of interaction with people who are running the campaigns or with people served by the campaigns. I also don’t want to pretend that I know everything that is happening here at the national office, because every day I realize how intricate TAC is. However, over the last few weeks, my understanding of how an NGO tackles such huge health issues has increased exponentially. I have had the chance to read about what is happening in the field, to hear concerns that the TAC branches have, as well as hear about their successes. I was able to help prepare for a small demonstration, and I interacted with the people who were partaking in it. I contacted media outlets to explain the demonstration and prepared the materials for it. The demonstrators and TAC staff showed such excitement and care for the issues that they were tackling and I was incredibly moved. I’ve also seen the importance in reports and data, even though they may seem boring or pointless to an outsider, because they allow a group like TAC to continue being funded to do their critically important work.


I have realized how much we, or at least I, take for granted in life. I’ve taken for granted the existence of organizations such TAC where many people devote a lot of time and work behind the scenes to make sure the field work is carried out successfully. I have also taken for granted that basic necessities in health are available to everybody. I was aware of the many problems existing in the world and how unfortunately there are way too many people lacking the basics for a decent and healthy life. However, it is one thing to talk about these problems in class, and another to directly hear that they affect people. By working in this organization, I have seen how many basic resources are lacking, and how negatively this impacts the lives of so many people. For instance, problems that arise include the lack of gloves, basic medical supplies and the shortage of tests, which prevent many clinics from testing for HIV or HPV. These are needed for the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of HIV or HPV, in addition to other illnesses. One of the tasks that I was helping with was entering data and reports on what is happening in the various provinces. I realize this may not sound too exciting to many people, but I came to the realization that this basic and behind the scenes work is an important step towards the overall goal to assure better health and a better quality of life for numerous people. I also had the opportunity to learn what is happening in different provinces and see various patterns arise, such as the huge differences between men and women who go to these workshops and clinics.


I’m ending this post by linking a video showing the dire situations at an assortment of different hospitals in the Free State that TAC posted on their Facebook page. To summarize the video, hospitals are lacking necessities such as life-saving TB and HIV drugs, they are putting HIV patients at risk by keeping them in the same room as TB patients, they are horribly understaffed, and it appears that people are dying from problems that could have been prevented or at least treated. When I was done watching and hearing about the appalling state of health in some of these hospitals, I was both shocked at what I had seen, but also inspired that I want to take part in health and health care around the world. It is important to acknowledge the incredible successes that organizations like TAC have accomplished, but we can’t forget how much more there is to do. And, it is vital that we remember the importance of the basics – both the behind the scenes work of an organization and the basic medical and sanitary equipment needed to save lives.

Are we making a difference?

“Give me the foolishness to believe that I can make a difference in the world”

          I can’t remember the exact quote, but when I went to the Methodist Church last Sunday, the ending prayer contained a phrase similar to that. I’m starting with this quote because it is how I have ended up feeling the last few days when I go to bed. Even with the frustration with the world and with humanity in general, that one understandably feels when there are so many awful things happening in the world, I believe we can do something positive and constructive.

          I’ve thought about what I would want to write for this post, and we have been through so much in the last two weeks that I didn’t know where to start. One of the things that has struck me the most during this trip though, is how willing everyone around me is to talk about what we are experiencing, to have in depth conversations about the history we are learning and about how it is affecting South Africa currently. This is one of the places that I think that all of us can make a difference.

          The past week in Johannesburg was an incredible, extremely packed week, filled with information that made me feel that I could serve the community that we are working in, in a much better way. Arriving in Cape Town with this awareness of where we are, makes the trip that much more meaningful. We visited Freedom Park, which is a way of celebrating South Africa ’s past and learned about this memorial for South Africans who have died in war and fighting the Apartheid. There, ideas of nation building, reconciliation and remembrance were brought up. Not only did we visit museums and monuments, but we talked to people who are South African and who have lived through Apartheid. We spent various afternoons and evenings talking to people who all care tremendously about their country, yet have different opinions about its current state, such as Dr. Noor Nieftagodien from Witswatersand University and the journalist Allister Sparks.

          Every time I came out of our meetings, I felt inspired and motivated. I found it fascinating to see how their individual stories and pasts had big influences on what they thought of the future of South Africa. One of my favorite questions was what could be done about the poverty gap, and answers varied. For example, Allister Sparks sees education as the answer to this growing problem, while Paul Verryn believes that everyone needs to be seen as human beings. We spent time together learning about what the freedom fighters went through for an equal society. We have had multiple in depth studies and discussions on the horrifying Marikana massacre, watching a documentary before it was released and asking all of our speakers to discuss their takes on the situation. This massacre has really struck me, and watching the movie and writing about it, I had a really hard time understanding why it happened. More than that however, I have a hard time understanding how there are people in the government who continue to defend themselves and the police, without seeing the horrifying conditions that the miners are going through to have higher wages. There are groups that have been on strike for 6 months, and I’ve been told that there is no way for them to recover from the financial burden that this is putting them through. These miners are fighting for the dignity to be treated as humans, and it is disheartening to see them treated as animals.

          However, the most valuable aspect to this was the time spent processing and discussing this information with the group, and that to me makes me feel like not only I, but everyone in our group, can make a difference. We can make a difference by engaging with each other and talking about what is happening in the world we live in. We can go home and talk to our friends, family and peers about issues such as race, socio-economic status and basic human rights. We can use what we learn to question our own microcosm. Maybe this is a foolish viewpoint, but I believe strongly that knowledge can shape the world in a better way.