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.


“Never again”

I was very impressed with South African museums in general before I started my internship at the District Six Museum. In Johannesburg, we visited the Liliesleaf Farm, Constitution Hill, and the Apartheid museum, all of which had touched me with their narratives of the horrific injustices of the apartheid system. The District Six Museum in Cape Town was no exception. It tells the heartbreaking story of the 60,000 District Six residents who were forcibly removed from their homes during the apartheid regime. Under the Group Areas Act, coloreds, blacks and whites were not allowed to live together in harmony like they did in District Six. The very existence of this neighborhood defied the government’s perverse ideology, which led to the destruction of thousands of these houses in the name of apartheid.

I must confess it took me a while to understand the great significance of the museum, and understand what role I would play. Whenever I have gotten involved in a civic engagement project I question not only the impact of my work, but of the institution that I work for. And so, I began to ask myself: why should we dedicate a space to remember only one of the thousands of atrocities that took place during the apartheid era when there are others that are probably more poignant? What am I, as a Public Policy major, doing here? How does this relate to my interest in economic inequality and development issues?

I guess I only started to realize how important this place was as I discovered that the museum goes beyond storytelling and offers a space for the discussion of human rights issues and social justice in general. Last week, for example, we worked with South African law students in a constitutional literacy program to teach high school students about the rights they are entitled to. The museum’s education department works hard on making sure today’s youth remembers and embraces the museum’s moral imperative of “never again.”

The District Six interns: Tunde, Corinne, and I

Team District Six at the museum

When I visited the District Six Museum for the first time, I was surprised by the sense of authenticity and intimacy that I felt in this space. I was clearly not in front of a pretentious museum production. On the contrary, our museum does not have the fancy large TV screens or the special lighting effects that well-funded museums usually do, but it has an important story to tell, one that is still very relevant to today’s South Africa. In a country where inequality is so pervasive, social justice issues are constantly on the radar. Just two years ago the entire world witnessed again the brutality of the South African police forces when 47 miners were murdered in a strike for a wage increase, an event that became known as the Marikana massacre. More places like the District Six Museum are necessary in South Africa to raise awareness of the dangers of social injustice and human rights violations.

Unlike any other museum I had visited, the District Six museum offers visitors the opportunity to interact with former residents of this colorful neighborhood, like Noor Ebrahim, who claims to have had the biggest family in District Six, with 300 cousins. He is one of the founding members of the museum, and as he writes in his book, this museum has not only given him a reason to live, but also hope for the future of South Africa, where the story of District Six can now be told without fear of retaliation. Noor has given me two tours of the museum and both of them have transported me back to the time when District Six was a vibrant community and neighbors would go to the bioscope on the corner of Clifton and Hanover streets for an afternoon of fun or to the time when the New Year’s Eve carnival celebration would fill Hanover Street with Malay choirs. His nostalgia of the glory days brings District Six back to life and puts a face and place to the injustices of the apartheid system.

Former District Six resident, Noor Ebrahim, engaging with visitors at the museum

Former District Six resident, Noor Ebrahim, engaging with visitors at the museum

I am really grateful to have the opportunity to work for a cause that I would have never expected to feel so identified with. Working for the museum has really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as for the questions that I was asking myself when I began my internship, I honestly don’t have an answer. I have no clue as to how this directly relates to my interest in economic development, but it does not have to when I am learning so much about the importance of keeping these events relevant. We need the youth of today to remember what happened in District Six and about the other atrocities of the apartheid regime so that they can uphold the the moral imperative of “never again.”

Workshop on human rights with students from Walmer Estate Primary School

Workshop on human rights with students from Walmer Estate Primary School

Duke interns with Mandy, Head of the Education Department at the District Six Museum

Duke interns with Mandy, Head of the Education Department at the District Six Museum

Dear Madiba,

On our way from the airport to our bed and breakfast in Johannesburg, I couldn’t help but notice all of the political propaganda on the streets. One poster in particular caught my eye. It was from the South African Communist Party (SACP) and read in big bold letters “Vote for the SACP, Do it for Madiba.”

We had arrived in South Africa right after the nation’s 4th democratic presidential elections, where a significant majority had reelected president Zuma. In a country filled with corruption and incompetent leadership, the image of Nelson Mandela on a streetlight was just a reminder of the rainbow nation all South Africans still dreamed of.

Before I came to South Africa I always wondered what made this man so special. Weren’t there other important political leaders who were imprisoned for almost 30 years with him in Robben Island? Wasn’t he one of the strongest advocates for a guerrilla approach to the anti-apartheid movement? From Bono to former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the world could not get enough of Nelson Mandela or as the South African people so affectionately call him, Madiba.

The cult of personality surrounding him always made me question his role as the face of the anti-apartheid movement. The poster only made me question it further. He had passed away last year and yet here was the SACP using (or rather, exploiting?) Madiba’s image.

It was not until I visited the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg that I finally understood the significance of Mandela in the movement. The videos, photographs and quotes made his story come to life again. There was one quote in particular that stuck with me. In an extract from his memoirs, he wrote from his prison in Robben Island: “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity.”

His time in prison had served him to reflect on the direction of the movement and his own life. He came out of prison without feeling any resentment towards those who had taken away almost twenty-seven years of his life (more than my entire lifetime!) and was willing to negotiate with them. Only a great man like him could leave behind the past to focus on the big picture and what actually mattered for South Africa. It was clear to him that they were not fighting for black South Africans, they were fighting against black and white dominance and for the unity of the country.

It was not until I came to South Africa that I completely understood the importance of Madiba not only in his country but also in the world. As a student of public policy, I am still trying to find my own way of making an impact in my country and, as naïve as it may sound, in the world. Mandela’s commitment to his principles and his willingness to give up so much of himself for his people are lessons that I will forever take with me.

Thank you, Madiba!