Ubuntu

Last semester – a lifetime ago, so it seems – we read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas in English 390S. Even now, I still often think about the “unreal loyalties” Woolf wrote about in reference to the divisions people create amongst themselves — and their use of those differences as grounds for exclusion and hatred.

The word “Ubuntu” originates here in South Africa. Translated from the Xhosa and Zulu languages into English, Ubuntu roughly means human-ness, or human kindness. That the very nature of being human is equated with compassion is striking to me. It would not be difficult to imagine the opposite to be true. Everywhere in the world, there are crimes perpetrated against humans by humans. Unreal loyalties – to religion, to race, to nationality – endow us with the capacity to commit evils of extraordinary proportions.

But Ubuntu isn’t choice any more than family is. The universal bond between people exists whether we recognize it or not. And therein the choice lies: will we embrace Ubuntu? Will we elect to love or hate?

I know that people are not black and white. Within us, there is the capacity for love and understanding – as well as hate and divisiveness. Sometimes, is only too easy for small misunderstandings and annoyances to develop into mistrust, and from mistrust into resentment and antipathy. The point at which we begin to perceive a person as intrinsically unlikable is where we lose the ability to truly see their Ubuntu. We develop gaping blind spots – capable of seeing that person’s faults and mistakes and blind to their instances of kindness.

Being here gives me hope. Everyday, I witness instances of people embracing Ubuntu. The man at the Laundromat who takes care of our laundry never fails to greet us with warmth. Yesterday at Sonke, where Rachel and I work, they threw us a going-away party, though we had both only been with the organisation for two months. Everywhere in Cape Town, people of different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities have shown us small instances of extraordinary kindness to the foreigners from the states.

The South African people are not singular in this regard: Ubuntu lives on in all corners of the world, in places of peace and strife. For every act of cruelty committed in the name of unreal loyalties, there are countless more instances of human goodness done in the name of our common humanity.

The dream of Mandela, and so many other unrecognized activists of the world, was life without walls and windows between the humans of this world. South Africa, as imperfect a country as it is, has made long strides toward that dream since the end of apartheid two decades ago. If the victims of oppression and injustice can embrace the spirit of Ubuntu, I am hopeful that we as Americans from many different places and backgrounds – who are different yet similar in ways which we sometimes fail to see – can as well.

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A Lesson in Remembrance

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit recently—on the lives of the people around me, the lives of people at home, and my own puny existence in the grand scheme of things. My newfound proclivity for navel-gazing I attribute, in part, to the lack of connectivity, i.e. the loss of time-squandering privileges. On a more serious note, I do recognize that immersion in a challenging foreign environment may have something to do with it as well.

I know I am not singular in this regard. As the weeks have flown by, it has brought me great excitement to hear about the game-changing epiphanies that my fellow DukeEngagers have experienced on their personal journeys here in South Africa. Many of us will be returning to school with resolutions and aspirations different from those with which we came.

Weeks ago, we were invited to the home of Jane and Gilbert, former anti-apartheid activists. “It’s so easy to forget what life is,” Jane commented after dinner, as we were chatting in their living room.

In knowledge and success, hallmarks of elite students all over the world, there is a certain comfort. Through the fulfillment of our ambitions, we weave the narratives of destiny and exceptionalism by which we define ourselves. Among the graced—the confident, the intelligent, the exciting—we envelop ourselves in the assurance that we, too, are destined for great things. It is so easy forget what life is: rarely beautiful or glorious, often tedious and mundane.

Here in Africa, I am a small drop in a vast ocean of humdrum human lives—few lived gloriously. The work I do is a small drop in a vast ocean of decades-worth of human efforts—some successful, many not. On the ground, the work is mundane, and the work is hard. I make spreadsheets. I edit documents. I am surrounded by people work with humility and quiet courage for great causes in uninspiring office cubicles. My big ego is put to shame by their dedication.

Yesterday, I found an old document on my computer planning out the next three years at Duke. For the first time, it failed to inspire the same sense of excitement about the future. To the contrary, I found it more than a little silly – the compulsive desire to control external events, to take the privilege of playing God to my life for granted. In some parts of the world, where livelihoods hang by the thread, schedules are anomalous.

There are those who will scoff at the feeble attempts of American college students to stand in the shoes of others, to serve and to glimpse that which they can very little understand. “The Americans have come to save the children,” some will jeer. I don’t blame them, yet they are mistaken. The Americans have not come to save the children. They come to bow their heads, if only for a moment, so that they might look into the eyes of those who they’ve neglected to see, having directed their gaze toward the clouds.

Profound personal revelations and life-altering experiences – these are the stuff of civic engagement myth. Yet too often do we fail to recognize what civic engagement is: the conscious act of remembering, of not taking the path made easy by privilege of forgetting what life is.

Walls and Windows

There are many beggars on the streets here in Cape Town. They sidle between the cars, smiling meekly at the people behind the glass. Even in the heavy rains this morning, they were on the streets, barefoot and obsequious as per usual. When they come by my window, I show them my empty hands and shake my head–”I have nothing to give you. I cannot help you”–I silently inform them, all the while knowing that I’m being untruthful. The money in my wallet will feed and clothe one of these men for several weeks.

We believe that apartheid is dead–in truth, it is everywhere. In my hometown, the construction of apartments is prohibited: the upper-middle class residents are loathe to share living space with members of the lower-class. In the U.S., we have built a fence to keep out those we perceive as the unwashed and uncivilized–this too, as Allister Sparks noted, is a form of apartheid. All over the world, the fortunate put up fences and windows to keep out the less fortunate.

Nelson Mandela once said that the character of a country can be determined by how it treats its disadvantaged citizens. At home, we treat the impoverished, the mentally ill, immigrants, and prisoners like animals–refusing to recognize that they, too, are human and worthy of dignity.

The chasm between the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the educated and illiterate is as old as human civilization. “This is the way the world is,” we say to ourselves–it’s sad, but its the way things are. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Bram Fischer, Steve Biko, and so many others who fought for the end of South African racial apartheid did not just say “This is the way the world is.” They said, “This is the way the world is–and this how we want it to be.”

During almost every one of our discussion sessions, the question of whether we are justified in our lifestyle here in Cape Town when so many less fortunate people around us live in poverty comes up. I cannot help but feel a certain frustration — at the futility of our words, of our guilt. What is the purpose of our words and feelings, when they cannot translate into action? I think to myself. What I fear is that through inaction, our initial prickles of conscience eventually fade into acceptance. This I often witness, here and at home. There are many generous and kindly people in my own life who look at the poor and say with sadness: “This is the way the world is.”

We came here to serve, but the cost of one safari trip exceeds a month’s salary for a farmer in South Africa. We are justified, we say to ourselves — most of us will never come back here again, after all. And what does it matter if we draw upon our own bank accounts, rather than that of DukeEngage?

It matters because we are students from Duke — because we are responsible to not only ourselves but also to our university, the program, and our country. Because we fight the prevalent stereotype that American students in civic engagement programs come as tourists in disguise, the little indulgences casting even the good that we do into doubt. Because the little things set up walls between those who can and cannot – between us and ordinary South Africans, and even between ourselves. And because as much as it pains me see people living behind the walls and windows of the world, separated from those with whom they share a common humanity, the thought that my children and their children will live the same way, shaking their heads and saying to themselves – “This is the way the world is” – is unbearable.

An Education

Several days ago, we visited a Zimbabwean refugee school on Albert Street in Johannesburg. Our group of eleven broke off into smaller groups of three, each of which engaged with a different classroom of high school-aged students. We had been told on the car ride there that whether we would able to establish a rapport with the students was unpredictable: each year, it depended on the group and the classroom in question. And so, I began our visit with a great deal of excitement and some apprehension.

The students astounded me. Yes, there were some silly moments—one kid wanted to know if people in China ate every kind of meat—and there was a brief but lively discussion about dating. Yet much of the conversation rotated around serious political and social issues. They asked about the U.S. response to the Nigerian kidnapping crisis, crime and homelessness in America, and how American people felt about the first black president. It was evident from their questions that they were well-read, well-informed, and highly inquisitive by the standards of any country.

As we left, we were approached by a student in the senior class who was looking at schools. Rachel and I urged him to come to Duke. We told him that if he were to be accepted, Duke would cover all financial costs. Later, we discovered that each year, Duke provides only around twenty to thirty scholarships to international students, the majority of which are merit awards. Even if he were to qualify, he would have to go through a wildly complicated application process.

It saddens me to think there are brilliant students all over the world who are deprived of an education simply because of the circumstances to which they were born. Duke is one of the great bastions of scholarship because it has opened its arms to American students of all races, classes, and backgrounds. It is our diversity of experience and thought that makes us extraordinary. Understandably, as an American institution, Duke must put the interests of American students first. I cannot imagine, however, that more cannot be done for the Albert Street School students, who by all rights should be the doctors, lawyers, and engineers of this world.