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

Perspectives

These past few weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has been covered with horrors of the Israel – Palestine conflict.  Last Wednesday, a Free Palestine protest raged outside my office and a conference has convened in Cape Town with the sole focus of addressing the conflict, concluding with another public protest on the steps of Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have an inherent bias about this issue – I am Jewish, and I was raised under the notion that we support Israel and its right to exist. Yet as Israel and Palestine continue to model just what revenge (a word all too easily synonymized with seeking justice) can look like, I am constantly reminded of the need to view the situation from multiple perspectives. In my admittedly undereducated opinion, Israel is to blame for halting the most recent peace negotiations, refusing to release Palestinian prisoners as promised and announcing plans to build new settlements on Palestinian designated land, and has contributed substantially to the current violence. I absolutely support a two state solution, if a fair negotiation can be reached between both sides. I do not support occupation of any kind by any persons, and I am horrified by the violence against innocent civilians. Yet, as I consider comparisons of the current escalation of violence in the Middle East to Apartheid, and more boldly, the Holocaust, I find myself holding on to the idea that the conflict cannot be one sided, wholly the fault of the Israeli government.

 

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photo Protestors march through Cape Town towards Parliament, demanding the South African government’s attention to the conflict. Photo Credit Jenna Zhang and Nicole Brewer

While I struggle with my musings, I sit in a country whose history is routed in opposing sides and perspectives. In 1994, led by Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress was elected to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, a symbolic end to decades of violence and oppression. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was charged with mending the broken bonds and stitching the country, long divided, back together, and became a vital fixture of Mandela’s start to the new, post-apartheid South Africa. The TRC heard testimony from thousands of victims and agents of the Apartheid regime. Quite controversially, to many of those who told the truth, humbly admitting their crimes, the state granted amnesty, a fresh start of forgiveness. Weeks ago, we spent a rainy morning in the sitting room of Minister Peter Storey’s seaside home. Storey’s Central Methodist Mission served an essential role in the anti-Apartheid movement, and Story himself was member of the panel that selected the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners. Storey reflected, “You can’t legislate reconciliation – you can only make space for it to happen.” When asked about the choice of honoring truth over justice, he responded, “Even though it was far from perfect, it was the most inspirational and best way to deal with wrongs anywhere in the world.”  To his point, he reminded us of the scars of slavery in America “buried like toxic waste;” an ever present fixture of American society today.

Last Thursday we sat with Mandy, the Education Director of the District 6 museum and the boss of a few of my fellow DukeEngagers.  A fervent anti-Apartheid activist, she scorned Storey’s perspective on the TRC, describing it as a horrible way to move forward. “How can you watch your friends die,” she asked, “and be okay with the perpetrators walking free?” When asked what she would have preferred, she answered in two words: “Nuremburg Trials.”

To me, the Nuremburg trials were vitally different from any prospect of peace in South Africa – most notably, there was no expectation that Nazi war criminals would be part of an ongoing community in which they and their victims or prosecutors would live together. While the Allied Powers could conduct a trial of prosecution and justice, at the end of ten painstaking months they could return to their respective countries, communities and democracies.  The Nuremburg Trials served as the final punctuation to the horrors of the Holocaust, while the TRC needed to be the guide into the era of the new South Africa, a country that could live together in spite of the scars inflicted on its citizens, by its citizens. Once more, I find myself muddled by these opposing perspectives. While objectively, the TRC stands as one of the most progressive means of reconciliation in history, there is nothing objective about the horrors of Apartheid.  It is much easier for me to accept the methods of the TRC, spared of an emotional connection to any victims. Nonetheless, while justice may have soothed wounds, would it perhaps have turned victim into persecutor, further widening the gaps in South African society? “Africa’s Richest Square Mile,” the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton overlooks the township of Alexandra; a newspaper features an advertisement on lavish condo sales alongsidean article on the current miners’ strike for wages equivalent to about $1,200 US dollars per month. These horrific inequalities suggest that the gaps are wide enough as is.

We spent the past weekend with primary students at the District 6 Museum, where we explored the themes of peace and violence, concluding that peace cannot be artificially imposed by the outside, but must come from within the community itself.  Whether or not the TRC was the right solution for South Africa, sustainable reconciliation could not derive from international sources the way it did from the Nuremburg trials, it needed to come from within.  Like the new South Africa, Israel-Palestine is a community that cannot just move away, but needs to live as peaceful neighbors with one another.  Whatever means must be used to find peace, it seems to me to be nearly impossible to accomplish if we refuse to view all perspectives.

One of the weekend’s participants drew a man without eyes, explaining that all too often we are blind to violence. In Cape Town’s Holocaust museum, I felt disgusted while reading what has now become known as the “Genocide Fax” – a completely ignored cry to the United Nations for assistance in the impending Rwandan genocide. Am I blinded by my own personal bias to the horrific thing occurring in Israel, equally guilty of innocent by-standing as the recipients of the Genocide Fax, or more appropriately, of those who upheld Apartheid because they truly didn’t realize something was wrong?  If I hold neither side as fully responsible for conflict, am I unfairly biased or appropriately rational? Am I and others who share my ambivalence hindering peace?

 

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Body maps made by participants at this weekend’s Night at the District 6 Museum. These bodies depict the students’ experiences of violence and peace in their communities and the world.

I may never fully understand the roots and depth of the conflict in Israel, or be able to formulate one sensible solution. Yet, if I can take one thing away from my time in South Africa, it is the words of Allister Sparks from our visit with him weeks ago.

“There is not one single answer.  Beware of those who have found the ‘perfect answer’, because it is they who cannot tolerate the opposition.  The pendulum does swing.” 

Apartheid was a horrific example of a government unable to tolerate the opposition, and I’m beginning to fear the same for Israel as well.  There are some things, such as Apartheid being inhumane and despicable, that there is one right answer for. However, much of the time, a singular solution or truth doesn’t exist, not for the means of reconciliation or to 20,770 square kilometers whose ownership lies at the impossible intersection of politics, faith, and deeply held ties to the land.  Conflicts seem to be based on this notion that there is only one right answer – it is so often Israeli or Palestinian extremist groups committing heinous crimes against each other. While I’m not going to pretend to understand the extent of the conflict, I will leave South Africa with the challenge to view the world and its conflicts with openness to and respect for multiple perspectives.  I admit it is naïve, but I believe if I can stop viewing the world as “good guys” vs. “bad guys” and justice and revenge, I might have a far easier time understanding how to move forward.

Growing Out of Feminism?

The majority of my work with Sonke’s Policy Development and Advocacy Unit has been split between a campaign for the Decriminalization of Sex Work and advocacy for victims in active gender-based violence (GBV) cases around South Africa. While these topics certainly merit their own lengthy discussions, I continue to fixate on one image I came across early in my research on sex workers’ rights, titled the “Sex-for-Reward Continuum.”

Marlise Richter. “Sex Work as a test case for African Feminism.” BUWA! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences.

Marlise Richter. “Sex Work as a test case for African Feminism.” BUWA! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences.

Published in a journal article Sex Work as a Test Case for African Feminism by one of my bosses, Dr. Marlise Richter, the image begs the question: where on this spectrum do we begin to prosecute an action as sex work? Certainly, we can agree that each instance on this spectrum is just that – an individual is engaging in sexual activity with a purpose to gain something beyond his or her own sexual pleasure. In South Africa (as well as the US) individuals partaking in the behavior on the left side of the spectrum are stigmatized, harassed and subjected to poor health care, police brutality and violence every day. Meanwhile, the narrative on the right side shouldn’t be foreign to anyone. This happens everyday as well, in South Africa and across America, including, if not accentuated, at universities.

Scenario “E” occurs each and every weekend at Duke, whether it is between a couple in a committed relationship coming home from an evening of indulgence at the WaDuke, an inebriated student making his or her way back to a dorm room after a night of being treated to drinks at the Shooters bar or a formal guest feeling a sense of obligation. I’ve known this fact about Duke’s infamous hookup culture for a while, but I think there was something especially striking about seeing it compared to sex work, something I confess I shared my own bit of stigma toward before learning and understanding it. No, these two scenarios are not the same thing, but their underlying motivations justly place them both on this list. While more than half of our campus is busy critiquing a peer for working in the porn industry to earn her tuition, why are we so okay with a hookup culture so pervasive that it can’t be purely for personal pleasure?

I don’t mean to begin yet another derision of Duke’s campus culture, and I don’t think it’s necessary. This problem did not begin at Duke, but I think is instead a result of a complete cultural phenomenon in the United States. Let me back up. I have been working with a team here to compile ongoing case information and updates on eight GBV cases, currently at different stages of the justice system. These cases include incidents of police brutality towards women and gay men, the forced marriage and pregnancy of an 11 year old girl (tried as Statutory Rape, Unlawful Marriage and Abduction), the rapes and murders of young girls (age 3 and 9) by neighbors or family friends, the rape and murder of an openly gay man and the murders of several women by current or past intimate partners (one of which occurred after police refused to grant the victim a restraining order with the notion of “not interfering in domestic affairs”). The European Institute for Gender Equality defines GBV as “violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender” adding that “it constitutes a breach of the fundamental right to life, liberty, security, dignity, equality between women and men, non-discrimination and physical and mental integrity.” Gender-based violence is anything – domestic violence, sexual harassment or assault, rape, traditional practices (forced marriage, female genital mutilation), human trafficking, and many more – that stems from a gender inequality. (As women have been historically marginalized as the inferior gender, many conflate the term violence against women and GBV.)

At Sonke, so much work is done with the goal of combatting “gender-based violence,” an unbelievably prevalent issue in South Africa. Although incredibly different in many respects, American society experiences several of the crimes listed above that fit under gender-based violence, yet I so rarely hear this term associated with them. Moreover, while I often voice my disgust towards sexual and physical violence around me, I seldom acknowledge the role of gender in those incidents. Is there something about American culture that convinces us to take the gender out of it?

Our group has discussed many times the notion that 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement, American culture broadly believes we are “past the race issue,” while we know this to not be true at all. Could this too be the case for gender equality? Women have had the right to vote for almost a century, have access to high levels of employment (albeit not equal pay, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) and are not limited to the “housewife” status if they don’t want to be. Is it possible that because of these notable advances (which are not to be discounted), have we become comfortable with the idea that gender equality is not something we need to be monitoring as a society?

Around the country, and amongst many of my own good friends both in Vermont and at Duke, being a “feminist” carries a very negative connotation. We call severe crimes by their legal terms: assault, rape, murder, etc., but we don’t attribute them to gender when it is a driving factor. Should we? Is it further marginalizing women to call it “GBV” and highlight our higher likelihood as a gender to be a victim to these crimes? Or are we as a society ignoring an ever-present inequality in a way that is detrimental to us?

There are currently 55 universities under investigation by the Department of Education for “possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.” While its not safe to assume this is a strictly gender-based issue, I am certain that the obligation felt in the Sex-For-Reward scenario plays a role in how some, if not many of these instances occur. Sometimes, this obligation isn’t even from a partner, just from a societal construct that teaches us that sex is an acceptable and sometimes expected form of reimbursement. While labeling South African crimes as GBV does not lower their occurrence, it does serve as a reminder of the continued injustice of women in this country. America may pride itself in its democracy, but there are many issues – race, economic inequality and gender just being a few – that we are not done dealing with. Perhaps if we called crimes what they really are – hate crimes, gender-based violence, etc. – we could be more honest about our flaws as a country, which in my mind, is the only first step towards tackling the problem.

Finding The Engage of DukeEngage

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Every week, our eclectic group gathers for our unpredictable reflection sessions, a time to feebly attempt to scratch the surface of all of what we’ve experienced since we arrived in South Africa.  This past Tuesday, someone shared a quote from Sunday’s church sermon: “Make me foolish enough to make me feel like I can make a difference.” At our orientation meetings, we spoke about civic engagement as a collaboration, wherein it is not our job to help the community, but instead to serve the community, as we are equally learning and growing from our interactions with them.  In the past two weeks, this question has continued to nag at me. While I already feel that I have learned so much in my time here, what am I actually doing to make a difference?

While 1994’s first democratic election may have marked the end of the Apartheid regime to the outside world, the economic, social and personal disparities are still just as present in South Africa as they were 20 years ago. With this knowledge in mind, I began my internship at Sonke Gender Justice Network driven to serve the community in any way I could.  Yet each night I continued going to gym, eating out at Cape Town’s decadent restaurants and whimsically brainstorming weekend trips to safaris and sight seeing expeditions. This isn’t to say that enjoying the incredible culture, cuisine and beauty of Cape Town is a crime, but I began to feel more and more uneasy about my purpose here.  Sure, I may be going to my internship and diligently completing tasks, but what am I actually doing to serve the community? Is it okay that my efforts seem to end with the end of the workday? Am I, an American undergraduate intern, even capable of making a difference at all in a society I can only pretend to understand? Is it selfish of me to worry about my lack of impact?

On Friday, I was given the opportunity to attend an event in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town. The event was sponsored by Sonke’s MenCare+ program, a national campaign aiming to combat the traditional views of gender roles and promote fatherhood, positive and non-violent parenting and gender equality. Packed into a small lobby at the Michael Mapongwana Community Health Clinic, the MenCare team spoke to over 50 men of all ages about the importance of their role in their present or future families. Shaming the norm of the emotionless man, the keynote speaker said “before you become a man, you need to become a human.” After hours of brilliant rhetoric and the viewing of a stunning film about fatherhood in their own community, members of the congregation stood to share their stories.  They spoke about their own fatherless childhoods, their lack of attentiveness to their own spouses and children, and their inspiration to change.

 “I feel really encouraged, because that man [in the film] didn’t have a father and I didn’t either.  I have two kids and I’m so proud.  I wasn’t there for my wife in the delivery room, I wanted to be but I wasn’t, but now I am. I went to the clinic with her last week, and I was the only father there. South Africa needs fathers.”

The men in the room may have been a tiny fraction of the men in the Khayelitsha community, and they may have been unique in their decision to come to the meeting at all. Nonetheless, before Friday, that number of men had never seen the interior of the maternity wing at Michael M, and that many men left the wing to return to their families and communities with the desire to change, and the desire to inspire others to change.

I am not going to reshape the South African economy or social structure.  I am not going to scratch the surface of the issues that this country continues to face.  My contributions may not lead to any tangible developments at all.  Programs like DukeEngage are commonly critiqued for being an opportunity for students to have some great “worldly” experience, yet they do not truly contribute to the community where they are working.  It is true that South Africa has already served me, from the tourist attractions, but also my ever-evolving perspective from hearing the stories of people in townships or anti-apartheid activists. For every incredible restaurant and simultaneous Table Mountain-Atlantic Ocean view that I photograph, I have talks with journalist Allister Sparks, minister Peter Storey and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Goldberg.  I have hours of history from scouring the nation’s stunning monuments and museums. I have an ever-growing understanding of the many intricate layers to South Africa’s history and Apartheid, and with that, a growing appreciation for the importance of acknowledging every vantage point. To an extent, perhaps I will gain more from this experience than I am able to give to the community.  Yet at the same time (while it may be self centered of me to crave some proof that I too am making a difference), I remind myself that all of our work doesn’t have to be obsolete.  As the men on Friday changed their perspective on their roles as men and fathers, they gained the potential to change not only their own homes, but also the homes of their neighbors, friends, colleagues, etc., slowly and patiently, yet nonetheless effectively.  I hope that I can find a balance between being an American exploring this place for the first time, and someone knowledgeable enough to serve the community with integrity, even in my own small way.  I may never perfect this balance, but in the meantime, I’ll let myself be foolish, because just as I hope is the case for every man I met on Friday, I’d much rather work like I’m making a difference, than not try at all.

MenCare’s film, “The Gift of Fatherhood”, shown at the community event: