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:  

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