"Without community, there is no liberation … but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist" - Audre Lorde
And with the snap of one’s hands, nine months has evaporated before my very eyes.
It seems all too familiar as at this time last year, I was still reeling from the “!” email I had received from Tom a bit too soon after my second interview. Due to the great pool of applicants, I was subjected to the emotional turmoil of having to wait to hear the news after my fellow fellows had already received it. My second interview occurred in the morning hours and the emotion of being nervous might have been the understatement of the century. After 15-20 minutes, most of which I don’t seem to recall, I waited. As I got to Reamer Campus Center, I had a great desire that it would be a nice time to check my emails. And as I sat on the communal computers outside the bookstore, I began to weep.
Then as they say, the rest was history. My journey in this placement has been a whirlwind to say the least. However, it is a journey I’m grateful for and one that I’ve most definitely learned from. Given another chance, I wouldn’t change a thing.
It was drilled into us by the previous fellows that for an enriching and well-rounded experience within our placements, it was wise to approach our new lives with no expectations and rather be immersed and take one day at a time. It was also important not to impose our views and beliefs on the people we work with but rather learn from them. I believe that the Minerva mantra by Lao Tzu is the best guide on how to effectively and non-judgmentally work in the developing world.
Go to the people
Live with them
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build with what they have,
But with the best leaders
When the work is done,
The task accomplished,
The people will say
“We have done this ourselves”
I took this advice whole-heartedly as I knew what it was like to be the “other”. I was born and raised in developing country and was subjected to the aftermath of those that chose not to follow this mantra. I’ve worked with a fair share of NGOs and I believe i’ve tried my best to be open-minded and fully immerse myself in the work and the environment that I was placed in. And with this mantra in mind, I went to the people.
Go to the people. Oddly enough, I remember my father saying these words to me one evening. It was a few days before my departure to South Africa when he silently looked up from the tv screen and said, “Go to the people. Learn from them, and I know you have a lot to offer. So go.” And he smiled sweetly and my heart warmed. And for a brief moment I was sure my dad knew of the quote. My father is not a man of many words, yet he knows exactly what to say when I’m in my moments of panic. His words were like an answer to a silent prayer that I’d been waiting to be answered. After our brief you-still-shock-me-at-times-dad moment, I realized I’d been holding my breath, making me tense, and I could finally relax. I was nervous about this journey that I’d voluntarily agreed to go on. A lot of questions plagued my mind. Would anyone get my sense of humor? What do I pack? What if I say something insensitive? What are my co-workers like? Once they know of my roots, will they think I’ve been too “westernized”? Surely my accent will give it away. All these questions loomed over me and after the conversation with my father, I realized there was only one way to get over this fear. So I packed my bags, went to the people, and I lived with them.
Life in South Africa has been very wonderful. The people are genuinely happy … all the time. It’s refreshing. The wave of excitement at 6 am, 7 am, all hours at which one should not be allowed to be overly excited. I grew anxious at the thought of having to mirror their emotion but was humbled by their welcoming smiles and their silent assurances that I needed not be anyone other than myself. Living here has taught me humility, sympathy, as well as empathy. This place has very much reminded me of home.
With my general knowledge of the country, I didn’t expect it to warm my heart as it has. Regardless of the not so picturesque unemployment rate, culture of violence, racism, poverty, and many more frowned upon issues, given the chance, I wouldn’t have changed my placement. These issues/problems are not unique to South Africa. Poverty, corruption, health and education inequalities happen all over the world. These are issues that we shouldn’t victimize to one country but ought to have opinions about and try to rectify them as they affect the global community. Africans are very passionate people … they are passionate about everything. I have learned that from them. This was information I already knew as I myself am African but being in their environment makes the realization that much apparent.
It is this passion that has moved the country forward and created the heaven and the majestic beauty that lines its coastline and is etched ever so perfectly on its landscape. It’s beauty not only comes from the scenic garden route or the jaw-dropping view from the top of Table Mountain; it’s intertwined with loving different people and their cultures. The sincere heart felt definition of the Rainbow Nation. They are a vibrant people rich with history and endless stories waiting to be told. And because of my experiences here, I have loved them … the people, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Kwa Nyuswa, Molweni, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaners, Indians … the list is endless.
Beginning as a blank book, my story has been written covering pages upon pages of my love story with South Africa. It unfolds as it dwells on how I’ve lived with the people, fully immersed myself in the county, how I’ve grown to love them, mirroring my feelings and surpassing them. I started with what they knew and took each lesson whole heartedly. I’ve built/written my own story with what they had, and hopefully I have contributed to some people’s lives, because they have touched me deeply. It is my biggest wish and hope that when my work is done, and the task and the terms of my fellowship accomplished, the people I have met and interacted with will say
“We have done this ourselves”