“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.
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.
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.