Greetings from Johannesburg, South Africa! Our flights were uneventful, thankfully, and even though we traveled for 29 hours, it felt significantly shorter than our 43-hour journey to Vietnam. Not only in terms of length, but this time we only took two planes (we flew through Singapore), instead of four (NYC to Frankfurt to Singapore to Hanoi). I realized I forgot to include the following list on the last post, so I’m putting it here:
Things I’ll miss about Vietnam:
- Outdoor markets with fruit and vegetables of every shape, size, and color
- The delicious dinners at my homestay
- Using chopsticks at every meal – I was surprised at the beginning of the trip when my host mom complimented me on my use of them, but my skills have definitely improved over the past 4 weeks.
- The prices – getting lunch for ~$1 every day, maximum $2, is a great feeling.
- Water water everywhere…in terms of lakes. Hanoi is filled with them.
- The mountains in Lac Village – waking up to that view every day was an incredible feeling.
- My host family, especially my little brother. Even though we couldn’t communicate more than a few words with each other, we definitely developed a sibling bond (he called me “Sister Rachael” in Vietnamese and it was adorable).
Things I won’t miss:
- The smog – you definitely realize how bad it is when you’re there, since you feel yourself breathing more through your mouth than your lungs (aka not breathing deeply) but I’ve never appreciated clean air more now that I’m out of Hanoi.
- Almost getting hit by moving vehicles while crossing the street and scaring other pedestrians as I curse while weaving in between motorbikes
- The constant gray weather with no sun
And now, SOUTH AFRICA! We’re here for 5 weeks total: 1 week in Johannesburg, 3 weeks in Bushbuckridge (specifically, Islington Village), and 1 week vacation in Cape Town. We arrived in Johannesburg as the sun was rising, around 6am on Tuesday, February 17th. As soon as I walked out of the airport and felt the sun, a breeze, and breathed in fresh, clean air, I knew I could handle South Africa. I didn’t realize how much the clouds in Vietnam affected me until we got here, where there’s a blue sky every day. This weather totally affects everyone’s mood here in such a positive way.
We drove to the hostel where we’re staying, which is in Germiston, right outside of Johannesburg. (Side note: people here drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right.) We’re actually staying in a seminary called the Mazenod Centre, and there are a few priests who come in and out during the week. The seminary looks like a villa from the front – it is a very large brick building with a courtyard in the center, and covered walkways all around it. The rooms are beautiful, and most people actually have singles (though I chose to be in a double, which was definitely the right choice because it is HUGE). We were all really surprised at how nice the seminary is, since our hostel in New Orleans was very small for all of us, and we were always (literally) stepping on each other’s toes because of the proximity.
Our first full day started with a 6am run with our country coordinator Jan (pronounced like “Yan”), who has run the program here since 2011. He’s lived here all his life, but has also worked with universities in the U.S. multiple times, along with working for IHP. He is SO COOL, and so was the jet lag that allowed me to get up at 6am! We’re staying in a colorful neighborhood of villa-like houses which all have gates and electric fences. We have also passed by some pretty poor areas while on our bus – the wealth gap in South Africa is one of the biggest in the world, with one of the highest levels of inequality according to its GINI index.
I’m very glad to have Jan as our coordinator here. I was also very interested to find out that he’s a vegetarian, and has been for almost 30 years. Since all I’ve heard about the food in South Africa is that it’s mostly meat, which he confirmed is true, I was surprised that the food served at the seminary isn’t as meat-heavy as it was in Vietnam. They also serve a delicious vegetarian dish every night, which is devoured by everyone, and reminds me of the dishes my parents make at home. I have no clue what to expect in my homestay in Bushbuckridge, but hopefully they’ll be able to make vegetarian dishes just like the seminary.
On Wednesday, we went to the Apartheid Museum, about 25 minutes away from the seminary. It’s so crazy to think that this only ended 20 years ago, right after I was born. This is so recent, yet I barely learned about it before this trip. We touched upon it briefly in 9th grade in African-Asian Studies (which is a HUGE topic, in retrospect), and all I really knew before this museum visit is that it was a period of intense segregation and discrimination, similar to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. I knew Nelson Mandela was involved, as well as the British and Dutch, but not many further details. I was completely unaware that there were tons of student protests, that people were displaced from their homes and forced to move to separate townships and “homelands”, or that people were arbitrarily classified into race categories (Black, White, Colored, Asian, or Indian). The museum was huge (we were there for 4 hours) and packed with pictures, posters, newspaper articles, film clips, models of solitary confinement cells, and enormous pillars at the front of the museum engraved with the key principles of the new constitution of South Africa: equality, diversity, democracy, responsibility, respect, reconciliation, and freedom. As one of the walls in the museum displayed, “Apartheid is exactly where it belongs – in a museum”.
On Thursday, we had 4 lectures, both class and guest speakers, which were all awesome. Our first guest lecturer was about the history of South Africa, which helped us understand more of the roots of Apartheid, and definitely helped me understand why the first thing we did in South Africa was go to that museum. Our second lecture was by a mother and daughter discussing NGO resistance to Apartheid, and the third was about education in South Africa. Sorry that I’m not including descriptions of these – I’m tired and have too many other things to discuss. But they were great!
Friday was our busiest day. We visited Soweto township and the SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth) Center, the Hector Pieterson museum, and got to see both Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s houses (from the outside). Soweto is a township to which blacks were forced to move during Apartheid, and it is still predominantly a black community. The SKY center in Kliptown is run by Bob, an inspirational man who has been through many tough challenges in his life; he lost his mom at age 4 and dad at 6. The center provides food, shelter, and education to underprivileged youth, especially orphans, in Kliptown. Bob cares deeply about his community, and truly believes that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He talked about not taking anything for granted, especially water, after explaining that the community has 120 water taps for 60,000 people. While this is clearly a challenge, Bob is extremely positive about Kliptown and what they do have: “That’s survival. We survive here”.
However, many of us found it slightly uncomfortable to be touring this village as a bunch of privileged, American college students, looking at a poor, African town with the inevitable tourist gaze. But after we debriefed and discussed our experience there, it was easier to realize that while we may not have given back to this community the way we would’ve liked to, we definitely had a valuable experience. This was a similar experience to one we had in New Orleans, after one of the leaders at a site visit mentioned the phrase “prostitution of a community”, referring to tour busses coming through and taking pictures of impoverished people who were hit extremely hard by Hurricane Katrina. Here in South Africa, talking with Bob and other community leaders, as well as playing with little kids, allowed them to show us what they are proud of and what they’re doing for themselves. We don’t want to victimize these communities because they don’t have much water access or enough food, because that’s the first thing we can do to set us back and make the tourist gaze seem real. But by recognizing what they’re proud of and standing in solidarity with them, I become aware that this experience helped me immensely. Our role is to recognize that community prostitution happens and exists, and, in theory, we learned something in our experience here that will allow us to give back more in the future. And now a shameless plug: Bob gave a TEDx talk a few years ago, check it out here!
In the afternoon, we visited the Hector Pieterson museum, which highlighted student protests in the 70s, resisting the brutality of the government during apartheid. Hector was 12 when he was shot during one of the protests, and this picture became iconic. The girl in the picture is his sister, and our group was actually supposed to meet with her, but something came up and it didn’t work out. That would have been a very moving conversation, I’m sure.
Today, Monday, we had a site visit at the Aurum Institute, which is a male sexual health clinic that provides free medical circumcisions and information to males before making the transition to manhood. It is definitely a cultural concept here, but this clinic does a fantastic job at providing other resources and guidance besides the actual surgery. They run youth programs, have HIV testing and counseling, and psychological services for young men going through the circumcision process. The staff is also extremely candid and enthusiastic about what they do, which is how people should be when talking about sexual topics – hiding or being embarrassed by it only perpetuates the problems. Just before this site visit, my lunch table had a very detailed discussion about different cultural, religious, and medical reasons for and against circumcision, including the procedural details, which was a lovely topic while we were eating.
Irrelevant to South Africa but extremely important on this trip: BOOKS! I didn’t bring any books with me solely because I didn’t want to add extra weight to my suitcase, but luckily a lot of other people did. We read a lot in our free time, especially outside in the beautiful courtyard of our seminary, and we’re always passing around books for others to share. So far I’ve read Wild and re-read The Kite Runner, and I just started a new book called Little Bee. Among others on this trip, we have Inferno by Dan Brown (I am PSYCHED to read it after reading both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons in the past few years), The Language of Flowers, A Thousand Splendid Suns (definitely re-reading), The Glass Castle, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and many others that I’m forgetting because it’s 10pm and I am EXHAUSTED.
Last few notes of things I’m loving here:
- Hellooooo SUMMER! Sorry again to everyone in the cold weather…I am writing this as I receive a text from my mom that Mel’s show was cancelled because of snow and that the temperature is in the single digits. Well, it’s been in the 80s and even 90s here in South Africa, and we all started getting tan (and burned…) on our first day here, after realizing how strong the sun is.
- Rooibos tea – an herbal tea that’s very popular here. I highly recommend it.
- VEGGIES – I decided to forgo not eating fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables once I got to South Africa and found a lack of cooked vegetables and an abundance of fresh ones in our seminary. We have apples, oranges, and bananas at breakfast, and salad at lunch and dinner, so how could I say no? (A few of my friends started calling me the vegetable whisperer, and I have to admit that I like it.) Additionally, everyone is drinking the tap water here because it’s said to be very safe. My only hesitation wasn’t about whether the water itself was safe, but at how different it was from the water in the U.S. and whether or not my system would have trouble adapting to it. But so far so good! (Others are having some trouble adjusting, if you know what I mean..)
- People speaking English / no language barrier – this is a huge load off after being in Vietnam. Our site visits have been such a different dynamic because people are speaking directly to us instead of through a translator.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, ends our stay in Johannesburg. On Wednesday, we’re driving 8 hours to Bushbuckridge (I’m desperately trying to download the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince audiobook with very limited wifi), where we’ll stay in a homestay for 3 weeks. And also apparently the bathrooms are just holes in the ground. Yay for new experiences (and that I brought toilet paper with me)!
One of Bob’s amazing quotes regarding being selfless to end this post: “When you live for other people, you live and live and live. Bob did it. And if Bob did it, I can do it.”