There’s no easy way to leave a place you’ve lived for five months…especially a place as gorgeous as Cape Town. There’s no adequate way to say goodbye to the students, teachers or staff at the sites where our Marquette group worked and learned since July, the friends we made in classes at the University of the Western Cape or the people we met in our Observatory neighbourhood. Though we were fortunate enough to have departure dates scheduled well in advance so as to allow us to prepare to leave, the last days in South Africa seemed to creep up out of nowhere, as these sorts of things tend to do.
Though I felt that any expressions of my gratitude to the people who helped make the time I spent in Cape Town so enriching would fall noticeably short, I certainly tried to tie things up as best I could. As our final weeks and days became numbered, I began thinking about what I still hoped to accomplish before I left. I had promised my reading students that they could come to the Kimberley House where our group lived for a party, so that became a priority. I can’t say with any certainty what the students took away from our time together, but I was thrilled at the party when I was able to give them the prizes I had promised them for their participation in class–books generously brought and sent to Cape Town by my family as well as families and other visitors of our housemates. I got a similar kick giving my guitar students mix CDs I had prepared and music to work on once I left, as well as hearing my English class read poetry and sing songs they had prepared for a talent show on the last day that Nora Kennelly and I taught them. I know that I was sometimes a little cynical in this blog when recounting how the students reacted to my teaching efforts, but I truly felt blessed to work with these young people. As I reflected on our time together and the moments that I found most challenging, I realized that the students were just kids being kids. In the most aggravating times–when they pulled out their cell phones in class, talked while I was trying to teach or suggested we shop instead of visit a museum–as well as the most moving times–watching the students’ excited reactions to getting their new books and CDs, watching them play soccer, choose music for the party, devour pizza or play on my computer–I did not find myself thinking about what I had learned about African children but rather young people in general. They behaved the way I would expect most people their age to, whether in Cape Town or Milwaukee. It was an important lesson that helped me realize that some of the cultural and ethnic barriers we construct are often not as immense as they might seem.
As I mentioned earlier, our final weeks in South Africa involved a lot of goodbyes. Days after finishing at my work site–which required saying goodbye to my reading class, an English class I co-taught, students I had given guitar lessons to, teachers and the staff of the Amy Biehl Foundation–our group presented advocacy projects we had been working on, presented our visual diary scrapbooks, finished final exams and went through the process of saying goodbye to our teachers and friends we had made at UWC. Seven of us then went on a rafting trip with our landlord and his wife in Namibia, thus requiring us to say goodbye to three of our housemates who would be gone by the time we returned to Cape Town. Our final days in South Africa after the return from Namibia involved saying goodbye to a different group of housemates leaving each day, our program director Melikaya, our driver Pearnel and for me, my theatre classmates who had welcomed me into their social group. In some ways, I was grateful that our last days in Cape Town felt so rushed and overwhelming. It allowed us to make sure that we packed in everything that we needed to and didn’t really give us the time to sit and feel sorry for ourselves about having to leave.
It is since leaving that I have begun trying to process what the significance of my time in South Africa was and what it might continue to mean for me in the future. I jotted down some thoughts as the plane took off from Cape Town Friday, Nov. 27, reflected more in the following week that Ryan Corr and I spent traveling in London and Paris and since arriving back in the U.S. two weeks ago, have had time to think a little more about the past five months. So far, the process has unfolded in the right way for me. I can’t speak for Ryan, but for me, visiting art museums, famous churches, and other historical sites like Jim Morrison’s grave and Abbey Road in Paris and London was the perfect preparation for returning home to the U.S. If I had gone straight back to the U.S. from Cape Town, I think I would have had a lot more difficulty in the transition. I have a great deal of admiration for my housemates who were able to do this.
None of this is to say, however, that I have the past five months all figured out. In fact, I think the greatest lesson I’ve learned from my reflection time is that determining the significance of my experiences in South Africa is inextricably linked to what I decide to do from here, I decide being the key words. I used to subconsciously think of these sorts of experiences as passive; someone goes to Africa, encounters new cultures, sees social issues that need to be addressed or makes relationships that touch them in new and profound ways. All of this is undoubtedly true, but I’ve come to think that it’s less about what that kind of experience does to me and more about what I choose to do with that kind of experience. My time studying abroad has the potential to fade into memory as a really fun five-month vacation. Or it has the potential to inform the activities I involve myself in, the way I address my work within those activities or perhaps even the vocation I decide to commit my life to. But it’s important to remember that the magnitude of Cape Town in my life is something I must decide. I no longer believe in waiting around, hoping that some person or realization will bring about change in one’s life or provide the impetus to move forward. In the words of my favorite Beatles song, “You have found her; go out and get her.” Though experiences like the ones I had in South Africa can open the mind to new ideas and the heart to new passions, it is up to us to push ourselves in pursuit of these new ideas and passions, not to wait for a person, place or experience to do it for us.
As I write about these impressions, I feel a little daunted by what could feel like the task of making South Africa meaningful for me. But then I remember another important lesson I gained in the last five months: the world is remarkably small. In the past four weeks, I’ve been on three continents, and after five months, I now have friends in or from Norway, Switzerland, Holland, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Great Britain and Zimbabwe. Fifteen days ago I woke up in London, England. A week before that I woke up in Paris, France; the week before that in Namibia; the week before that in South Africa; and this morning, I woke up in the bed I’ve slept in since I was 8 years old. It’s hard to say exactly how all of this gives me hope for being able to live a life that to my mind satisfactorily honors the experiences I was fortunate enough to have in South Africa, but somehow, it makes goals that can feel impossible seem that much more possible. Before I went to Africa, the entire continent existed with a great deal of mystique in my mind. It was the holy land where the great social activists went to change the world, where the beautiful people who live there could teach all of us about what is really important in life. While some of this mystique is deserved–for Cape Town and the other cities we visited in South Africa are truly the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen or ever expect to see in my life–I’ve realized that the entire world, not just Africa, has remarkable beauty.
A few weeks ago when we were on our rafting trip in Namibia, lying on a sandy, desert-like beach and looking at stars that were clearer and brighter than any I have ever seen in my life, I realized that in a few weeks time, I would be at my family’s home in Fond du Lac, Wis., taking my dog for her last walk of the night around the same neighbourhood I used to play Block Tag and Kick The Can in. On particularly clear nights, I would be able to look up and see some of the same stars I had watched while halfway across the world in Namibia. It made me smile to think that I would have such an immediate, sensory way of carrying the beauty I saw in Africa with me anywhere with clear skies in the U.S. And it reminded me that my time in South Africa and the things that I did and learned there did not end on Nov. 27 but are also something I carry with me. I don’t have to be in Africa to do something worthwhile with my life–though it took going to Africa to help me realize this. Because the same sun that rises and sets over South Africa is the same one that rises and sets over Milwaukee, Wis., London, England and Paris, France. Every place in the world has beauty, lessons to be learned, insights to be gained and experiences to be had.
Coming to South Africa has begun the process of helping me to answer a lot of personal questions on topics ranging from what I could or could not see myself doing with the rest of my life, how I want my experiences here to influence my activities when I return to the U.S. and what song I want to play first when I finally get my hands on The Beatles Rock Band. One question I still struggle to answer, however, is why I decided to come to South Africa in the first place. The answer seems like it should be simple enough—maybe it was a desire to find something my familiar surroundings could not offer, to meet and learn from people from different cultures or to discover my life’s vocation. These would all be admirable enough endeavors, and while they are part of the story, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t come to Cape Town partly because of my Bono complex.
I should probably begin by explaining what my Bono complex is. It is the completely ridiculous, irrational voice that tells me the world has a lot to gain if I emulate U2’s frontman by going to Africa, wearing a white bracelet so people know how savvy I am to acknowledge the need to fight poverty and HIV/AIDS, and trying to write songs that could someday be played when the starting lineup of the Marquette Men’s Basketball team is announced at the Bradley Center. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I can pull of wearing sunglasses indoors, but I’m working on it.
The problem with my Bono complex is not what it has led me to do over the years. To be honest, I might not be a member of or even know about the ONE Campaign to make poverty history if it weren’t for having seen a commercial with Bono, one of Charlie’s Angels and a slew of other celebrities snapping their fingers to indicate that a child dies from extreme poverty every three seconds. I probably would not have helped organize benefit concerts for Habitat for Humanity or St. Bernard’s Parish in New Orleans if I had not watched Paul McCartney, U2 and most importantly, Will Smith, perform at Live 8 in 2005. No, the trouble is with what motivates me to do these things. At times, I have worried that a driving force behind my doing good deeds is the belief that they will make me look cool. The greatest downfall of this kind of mindset is that a person’s passion for the work they are doing will always lose out to their passion for making sure they look good doing it. Thus when the work gets tough, this type of person suddenly might not be so interested in advocating for education, women’s rights or whatever the issue may be.
For me, this gut check about why I do the things I do has been most revealing at my work sites. There have been some indicators of questionable service incentives at various points throughout my time in South Africa—how much I relish the admiration people express when I tell them that I teach guitar and reading at township schools; the satisfaction I take posting pictures of me playing with African children on my blog; sending postcards to my family that describe what I consider to be challenges at my sites. I think the most telling moment came one day when I was reflecting that I might not have time to accomplish an idea I had for my reading class. While my initial reaction was one of disappointment, my next thought was something along the lines of, ‘Oh well, I’ll be leaving in a couple months and it won’t be my problem anymore.’ I cannot remember the last time I’ve been so ashamed of myself.
I’m grateful that my self-centeredness has become more apparent to me in South Africa, because it has pushed me to try to do things for the right reasons. Two of my reading students walked out of class a few weeks ago because they felt that I was favoring another student over them, and though I was tempted to tell their homeroom teacher that it was fine by me if they did not come to class anymore—after all, the absence of those two wouldn’t have changed the fact that I could tell people that I had given reading lessons in a South African township—the voice that is showing me the real value of the work I’m doing advised me to explore a different route. With some crisis-control help from one of the school’s teachers, the students rejoined us the following class and have consistently been coming since that day.
I’m not perfect; I still occasionally feel pleased by the knowledge of how great all of this time in South Africa will look on a resume. But I have tried to balance my more selfish notions by reflecting on why the work I am doing is important in and of itself. The students I work with are not simply supporting characters in the story of how Brian Harper went to South Africa and learned valuable life lessons. They have stories of their own, with future chapters that will be influenced partly by the work I, and other teachers, do with them now. And who knows; maybe someday, there will be a paragraph in one of their stories about something they learned from the goofy, U2-loving American who hung out with them for five months. I don’t want that to be the incentive behind the work I’m doing with them, but if it does happen, no sunglasses or attempts at rock star cool will be able to hide my pleasure.
A very wise person, perhaps even wiser than the tree from Pocahontas, once said that we hurt the ones we love. Now I do not think I football-tackled Mike Ciske out of love when he tripped me at soccer practice in 9th grade, nor do I think love was what motivated me to ring my neighbor’s doorbell every Saturday night around 2 a.m. for the better portion of my middle school years. But I do think there is some real truth to the idea that the closer and more comfortable we feel with people, the more comfortable we are taking our frustrations out on those people. When you live in a relatively small house with 18 other people, it doesn’t take long to get comfortable.
By no means have the 19 of us living in Kimberley House had any big blow-ups. There have been no threats to return to the states, no relationships destroyed irreparably and no fists thrown. There has just been the little sniping that gets under people’s skin, the irritating comments that cause people to offer suggestions of what the person who annoyed them can do to him or herself. Dishes unwashed, noisy late-night dance parties, people hogging the house phone or shushing anyone who dares make noise while they are watching Dexter are simply the manifestations of our general fatigue of living in close quarters.
Good news, though: we are currently living in a country that is known for the magnanimous way its people—both the majority that was long oppressed by the evil racial classification system of apartheid and the minority that oppressed the majority—came to a place of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. It has been incredibly humbling to meet and talk with people who can compare the way the country was before and after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election. As we have listened to the personal accounts of those who had every reason in the world to hate someone but instead chose to try to understand them, dirty dishes, snoring roommates and hair-clogged shower drains have all been shown for what they really are: incredibly trite issues that are never worth drawing a line in the sand over.
I have already talked about one of the most obvious instances of forgiveness in a previous blog entry, but the Biehl family’s story is worth mentioning again. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright scholar whose research and work involved womens’ rights and helping South Africa move towards democracy. In 1993, she was murdered by a mob of black men who, after years of oppression under apartheid, were suspicious of a white person’s presence in the underprivileged township Guguletu. In an astounding act of forgiveness, Amy’s parents supported the four men convicted of killing their daughter in their application for amnesty under South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perhaps as remarkable as the forgiveness was the subsequent work with two of those men—Easy and Ntobeko—in the formation of the Amy Biehl Foundation, an organization that seeks to empower and assist in growing township youths through reading classes, an after-school program and other opportunities. It is the organization through which I teach reading, English and guitar classes, and it is also the organization that allowed our group to hear Ntobeko and Amy’s mother Linda speak about their experiences together. While our questions all seemed to politely and subtly ask Linda how she possibly found it in herself to forgive Ntobeko, their answers seemed to in turn ask how they possibly could have passed up an opportunity to carry on Amy’s work by learning from the people she fought for and trying to help future generations. (Note: A more detailed account of our meeting with Linda Biehl and Ntobeko can be found at one of my housemates’ blogs: cateatthecape.wordpress.com)
Despite these lessons, our house clearly still has questions about how reconciliation can play into our daily lives. After a mid-semester trip that saw tensions build after six-hour car rides, intense games of Mafia and 12 people sleeping in a single room together–deafening snoring and sleep-talking included–I suspect many of us were looking for the secret to preventing World War III. Though we have not found some kind of elixir that cures all of our self-inflicted wounds, a weekend in Hermanus with author John de Gruchy certainly helped us to begin realizing a way forward. The format of our retreat was that Mr. de Gruchy, who wrote a book documenting the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, would answer any questions we had in four sessions over the course of three days. While questions varied from how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to how to understand the Gospel, a few answers de Gruchy gave stuck out in my mind. One of our housemates almost timidly asked de Gruchy how we, who have not experienced schisms anywhere near those South Africa has seen, can learn to be forgiving of each other. There was a sense of urgency in the question, as though we all realized how much we needed to learn how to apply these concepts to our everyday lives.
De Gruchy’s answer focused on tolerance but not in a way I had ever heard it spoken of before. I had always thought of tolerance as a good thing, evidence of one’s ability to live with other people. While de Gruchy did not contest this, he suggested that tolerance implies a willingness to live with but not necessarily accept others’ differences, a capability to stand next to someone you do not like without necessarily trying to understand them. It is not tolerance for others that we should seek, said de Gruchy, but rather respect for others. Respect implies acceptance, understanding and even love.
De Gruchy also touched on the often-overlooked depth of a decision to forgive someone else. Speaking in terms of the Christian tradition, he explained that the cost of forgiveness—the cross of Christ—was beyond-comprehension enormous. It was not the simple looking over of someone’s wrongs but the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless person’s life. The person who can easily say they forgive someone, he warned, is not necessarily forgiving.
This was a tremendous gut check. How often, I asked myself, have I told someone I forgave them for some tiny, insignificant fault they committed against me, while actually carrying a grudge? How frequently have I failed to forgive myself or accept someone else’s forgiveness for something that my faith told me God had already forgiven me for the moment I committed the wrong?
Forgiveness isn’t always the popular route to take. When someone embarrasses you, takes something from you or cheats you in some way, it is seldom difficult to find voices advising you to trust that person no more, disregarding them and cutting them off from your life in the process. People might argue that in forgiving someone, you are simply allowing them to walk all over you. But if we think of forgiveness as John de Gruchy described, it is a struggle, but a necessary and important one. If we at Kimberley House, Marquette, UWC or anywhere else cannot learn to forgive ourselves and each other for our shortcomings—whether they are mistakes at our work sites, disrespect for our housemates or callousness towards the feelings of others—we will surely have serious issues understanding and living with each other when those difficult moments pass. Like I said, none of us have ever faced the challenge of forgiving someone to the extent that Linda Biehl did. But we can all certainly learn something from her and Ntobeko’s story. At some point, carrying the bitterness that results from someone hurting you becomes even more of a burden than the initial pain they caused ever was. Choosing to forgive may make people call you naive or a pushover. But if we take John de Gruchy’s advice and think about it as a way of life, a decision with deep implications that are not to be taken lightly, it is clear that there is nothing foolish about recognizing the need to forgive the people who wrong us, accepting the forgiveness of those we wrong and forgiving ourselves for the times we fail to understand this.
Sometimes I catch myself saying things that suggest I’m in the running for the Manliest Man Alive title. I think it’s out of some misplaced desire for everyone I encounter to think of me as the type of guy who does all of his shopping at Gander Mountain, only eats beef jerky, and listens to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils as he prepares to eat the bear he just shot with his bow and arrow. Unfortunately, cracks generally appear in the façade pretty quickly. It comes out that I suck at hockey, think Sleepless in Seattle is pretty good, and failed in my single attempt at catching a fish bare-handed because I got scared when the fish swam forward and bit my nipple.
Once in awhile, however, I wear the self-proclaimed Mr. Balls to the Wall title so proudly that I have no choice but to buck up and try to prove said manliness. A pretty good example was that time two weeks ago when I acted like jumping off a 216m bridge was no sweat. It actually turned out to be a pretty big sweat.
I had known I would be bungee jumping before I even left the states; the jump from the Bloukrans Bridge was our first stop on the pre-scheduled mid-semester trip that would take us to backpackers’ lodges along the eastern coast of South Africa, with stops in major cities and sites like Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Kruger National Park.
Our group of 12 was picked up from Wild Spirit, the beautiful, forest-surrounded lodge we had stayed at the night before, early on the Saturday morning we were scheduled to jump. Though we were packed into a van like cows being taken to the slaughterhouse, I found a comforting sense of solidarity on that ride, as Grease was pumping through the van’s stereo and I learned that someone else’s chills were multiplying.
When we arrived at Bloukrans, most of us wisely made one last run to the bathroom before strapping on our harnesses and making our way towards imminent death. While most of the group opted to walk to the center of the bridge, I joined a few others in taking a zip line to our jumping spot. This was very fun but also pretty stupid. As I hung from a rope and slid out to meet my friends at the bridge’s center, I looked down to see what I would be jumping into. Trees. Water. Rocks. That would hurt if I hit those things falling from a high distance, the voice of reason that was growing quieter told me. I would definitely be dead, it added. Really dead. And I was about to jump off a bridge situated right above those very trees, water and rocks.
I got to the takeoff point to find that two of my compatriots had already jumped, leaving me on deck. I was soon led to a chair where a member of the bungee staff connected my legs with two cushioned pads. As he wrapped bungee chords around them, I asked him if they were really tight enough. He looked at me with the eyes of someone who is used to people questioning him daily on whether or not he is doing his job of keeping them from death. He assured me that my legs weren’t getting free.
With one bungee staff person on either side of me, I was lead to the edge of the bridge like a prisoner being taken to his execution. I muttered a quick prayer and promised Ryan Corr my Pokemon card collection if I died. As the two staff people moved away from my side, they began to count: “Five, four, three, two, one…BUNGEE!”
I bent my knees and hurled myself head-first from the bridge. I had expected to feel the greatest adrenalin rush of my life (which I did) but surprisingly found it kind of peaceful. I had never felt so light or heard the wind so clearly and as I neared the end of my five seconds of free fall, I felt myself pulled back towards the bridge as if by the will of some invisible hand.
This process of bobbing up and down eventually ended, leaving me hanging upside down over the aforementioned trees, rocks and water, blood rushing to my head all the while. I don’t really remember what I thought about as I was dangling, but I remember getting the kind of relief I hadn’t felt since Toaster Strudel announced its wild berry flavor when the bungee staff person came down on a harness to bring me back to the bridge.
I joined the group in cheering as each jumper stepped to the edge of the bridge but was caught in a perpetual daze the rest of the day, from swimming in a forest pond to exploring Port Elizabeth’s night life at the end of the day.
Though nothing else we did that week matched bungee jumping in terms of providing a pure, unadulterated rush, we did get to see and do some pretty spectacular things. At a backpacker called Buccaneers in Chintsa, I made the Indian the third ocean I’ve swam in, making my way out far enough to allow large waves to carry me back to shore. In Durban, we visited a market consisting primarily of Indian vendors who provided us with shirts, hats, necklaces, spices and whatever other trinkets we wanted to bring home to our families. And in Johannesburg and Soweto, we visited a church, museums and Nelson Mandela’s former home, all of which to some extent documented yet kept alive the stories accompanying the South African struggle against apartheid. As we saw the site where the first student was killed in the Soweto Uprising against an exclusively white government that planned to force black Africans to speak their language in school, saw the horrendous conditions at the Constitution Hill prison where many anti-apartheid activists had been kept along with common law criminals and looked at the bullet holes that had interrupted a struggle movement meeting in a church, one began to get a small sense of the incalculable sacrifices of many of those who opposed apartheid.
We also had an opportunity to take a tour of the Zulu village Emaphephethieni. Though the word “tour” seems to drip with connotations of Americans walking around, cameras snapping and brochures waving, we had no need to worry. Nogu and Thami, our two guides, showed us around in a way that taught us about Zulu culture while also opening our eyes to some of the things Zulu people do in their daily lives. The two showed us the bracelets girls make for male suitors before the males embark on the long process (sometimes ten years) of making four payments including cash, goats, calves (11 of the girl is a virgin, ten if she is not; to receive only ten calves is very embarrassing in Zulu culture), and general gifts the girl’s family requires. Only after that can the man and woman wed. Nogu and Thami also took us to see a sangoma, a traditional healer. The sangoma did not speak English, but through translation, she told us that sangomas do not seek their profession but are called, sometimes through physical pain inflicted by their ancestors. This particular sangoma was called around the age of 15 back in the 1950s. Because her mother was also a sangoma, she did not need to go through the typical training.
The highlight of our time in the Zulu village, however, was lunch and dancing in a large, open hut-like structure. The meal, which we ate with our hands, consisted of maize, spinach, tomato, onion and squash. While fantastic, it was no match for watching little Zulu girls kick their legs frantically to the beat of a makeshift bucket drum. Thami and Nogu soon had each of us on our feet, embarrassing us as we tried to keep up with their killer dance moves. If bungee jumping was the adrenalin high of the trip for me, experiencing the culture of new friends in Emaphephethieni was the spiritual and emotional apex.
Any of these experiences would have been great on their own, but we topped the whole trip off with a safari in Kruger National Park. Kruger is not like visiting a zoo in the states, where one is guaranteed to approach a given cage and see a given animal that might occasionally scratch itself in between nap breaks. There are no guarantees on safari; visitors might get lucky and see all of South Africa’s Big Five (cheetah, lion, elephant, rhino and water buffalo). On the other hand, they might only see the boring, deer-like impala.
Our group got lucky. Split into two jeeps with the unforgettable guides Marcus and Verner, we began to drive through the park at 6 a.m. the two mornings we were at Kruger, scanning both sides of the road in the hopes of seeing something extraordinary.
Even Kruger’s normal was extraordinary for us. We watched elephants dipping their trunks into a huge, man-made trough, giraffes feeding from the top leaves of tall trees and a warthog darting out of its sanctuary hole. We also got to see things that our guides told us were particularly unique. Half of our group saw a cheetah lank across the road, mere feet from the jeep. We saw two wild dogs of which there are only about 300 in the entire park. We saw an outcast lioness lurk by two giraffes before she decided she was no match for them. And we even watched from a bridge as two crocodiles did the dirty deed in the murky waters below. Nature sure is beautiful.
It was impossible not to feel satisfied with our trip as we flew from the Kruger area back to Cape Town. But I felt more than satisfaction; I felt a strange sense of relief and encouragement. Though studying abroad in Cape Town, even on the most responsibility-filled days, is really like a perpetual vacation from what we are used to in Milwaukee, Wis., our semester trip was, for me, a much-needed getaway from what had started to sometimes feel like a routine. Even more than that, however, it provided a new sense of direction for our remaining months in Cape Town. The irony of that new sense of direction is that it actually provides no direction at all. As a man who loves a plan, I find it difficult to get into something with very little description, structure or goal in mind. I’ve realized that that is probably the source of some of my greatest frustrations at my work sites. With no directive for how exactly I should measure the reading, English and guitar levels of my students, no indication for how I am expected to teach my classes and often lacking self-assurance of my abilities to teach anybody anything, it is helpful to learn that great things can be done and great experiences can be had in moments of total uncertainty. You might never see a lion at Kruger, but you’ll never know if you go out and try to find one. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust that something good will come from teaching a child to play Every Breath You Take on guitar, taking an AIDS and Development class or reading Twilight with a group of 12 and 13-year-olds. Though the proof of the success of these endeavors may not be readily available to us or may be seemingly small and insignificant, we often might be surprised by what we can learn from taking a chance. So if your friend tells you to jump off a bridge…think about it.
I will let you in on a little secret that might be surprising in light of some of the things I have talked about doing in this blog: there are some days, even in South Africa, when I simply do not feel motivated to get up and get going. I do not mean that in a depressing, the-world-holds-nothing-for-me way. No, I am talking about those days we all know and love, the ones where knocking off the first season of MacGyver on DVD with the occasional jaunt to the kitchen for more Cocoa Pebbles sounds pretty fulfilling. These are the kind of days where talking about the paper you need to write is as much of a success as actually writing the paper.
To be honest, I have been a little surprised in the moments I have felt this way. My naivety has been a fairly recurring theme in these blog posts, and I think it is again appropriate. I was unrealistic about the transformation I expected Cape Town to initiate in me. I had romantic visions of going into this trip as a painfully unaware, ignorant and even selfish American and leaving with the steel will and selflessness of a Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. What I have found, however, is that developing the admirable behavior associated with people like this has a lot more to do with the choices I make than where I am when I make those choices.
The instances that my energy, will power and patience have been most tested have been at my service sites. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I have been teaching a reading class of 6th and 7th graders at St. Mary’s Catholic School in a township called Nyanga. While it has already been a truly rewarding experience, it has also been very challenging. I might ask a student to explain what we read the previous class and get a shrug in reply. I might ask students to prepare a drawing that compares part of their life with one of the characters we read about and discover the next day that none of them remembered to do the work. I have asked students to complete this assignment four times now and still have not had a student bring in a drawing. You know what they say, though: fifth time’s the charm.
The after-school program I teach guitar lessons at has also presented its fair share of difficulties. Teaching a new instrument to someone is in some ways similar to teaching someone a new language. While a Spanish teacher might struggle to teach a topic simplistically when their understanding of that topic is on a more sophisticated level, a guitar player who is more familiar with pieces that are past a beginners’ stage might have difficulty explaining the basics of playing the instrument.
The most aggravating aspect of these challenges, however, is not their presence; it is the reaction they get out of me. The reaction is generally…well, aggravation. It can be pretty perturbing to teach a class when students often do not complete their homework, talk while I try to explain something to them and are silent when I ask questions. The times I feel the worst about getting so irritated, however, are the instances when a student is clearly putting forth a full effort but with little success. There have been times when I have felt my patience waning as I grasped for a simpler way to explain the difference between a guitar’s frets and strings. I have also felt my blood rise as I reiterated yet again that you can only answer “yes” or “no” when playing 20 Questions.
If I have the same kinds of frustrations I sometimes feel in the states, however, I can take comfort in the fact that I have been able to find inspiration the same way I do at home: from other people. Luckily for me, there is no shortage of people in South Africa who are there to remind others through their examples that we each decide whether or not to see our circumstances as obstacles or opportunities.
Linda Biehl, the woman whose daughter is the namesake of the foundation I intern for, is an excellent case in point. As far as I know, Linda was a relatively normal, suburban mother until 1993. That year, her daughter Amy, who was doing graduate work in Cape Town and trying to help the country ease in its transition from apartheid to representative democracy, was murdered by a mob who saw her as a symbol of white oppression. The response of Linda and her husband falls under none of the categories for reactions I would expect: they supported their daughter’s killers’ appeal for amnesty in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, began a friendship with two of these men and set up the Amy Biehl Foundation (ABF) to guide Cape Town youths in positive life directions. When Linda and Ntobeko, one of the men who killed Amy and who now works for ABF, spoke to our Marquette group, I could not help but sit in awe of what life had brought these two people and how they each chose to react: a suburban mother’s daughter was murdered, and she sought to understand and become a part of what her daughter was trying to accomplish in the first place. A young man grew up in an oppressive and racist society, responded to the Pan-African Congress call to militancy, paid for his crime in prison and found redemption through a new mission with the person whose daughter he killed.
There are many people we have had the good fortune of meeting that have different but equally inspiring stories. Judy Mayott, an American woman who was instrumental in beginning the Service Learning in Cape Town programme, has been a part of countless organizations and has won award after award for her tireless human rights activism. While in a war zone, she stepped on a landmine and lost the ability to walk. Nonetheless, she continues to work for the causes for which she has paid an incredible price. There is Desmond Tutu, whose wit, wisdom and humor were shining lights for South Africans during some of the darkest days of apartheid, as well as during the revelations of that darkness during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even my housemates, who are also working tirelessly at their sites to make real differences in others’ lives, floor me. Megan Yohann, for example, wrote a proposal for an initiative to feed 20,000 people. Terry McGrath has been administering HIV tests for people in townships. And Charlie Birts will sometimes show up at Tembalethu School and be told what he will be teaching a group of disabled children less than an hour before the class starts.
The people that inspire me the most here, however, are the very students that can give me so many headaches. For while they can forget to do their homework or chatter in Xhosa while I try to ask them why Bella was sad about leaving Phoenix in Twilight, they also demonstrate remarkable determination considering the way some of the proverbial chips of life are stacked against them. English is their second language, their school libraries consist of books such as Fred Savage: Totally Awesome and they come from a socioeconomic background that does not afford them the comforts that I take for granted every day. Despite these setbacks, however, the students show up. While they are not always quick to answer questions, some of them volunteer, especially if I coax them with bonus points or the promise of snacks (they said my first attempt at chocolate chip cookies was acceptable). That is not to say that it is not tough, or that it will not continue to be tough. But in those few moments when I have felt that I really could not take any more, something has always happened. I see one of my students trying harder than I have ever seen someone try before. It may be an effort to read a series of words that they have never seen and cannot pronounce. It may be a guitar part they cannot understand. But as they shake their heads with frustration over each mistake, and then bow their heads back down to their task, furrowing their brows in determination to get it right this time, I take a deep breath, realize that it is time for me to do the same, and walk over to try and help them.
This blog begins with my dad, who has never surfed and has therefore found his way to the beginning of an entry with this title under questionable pretenses.
Anyway, my dad occasionally makes reference to things he learned while in the Boy Scouts—how to build a fire from scratch, how to decide what trail to take at a fork in the woods, and how to wrassle a grizzly bear. I think he would probably talk about his time in the Boy Scouts more often if my brothers and I didn’t tease him whenever he brings it up. Perhaps this is out of self-consciousness; the three of us barely made it past the Cub Scout stage. By the time we neared the age where we were old enough to march in the Fond du Lac County Memorial Day Parade, we had bigger fish to fry.
One valuable thing my dad may have picked up from his merit badge-chasing days, however, was a willingness to experiment (i.e. with fire-building techniques) and try new things (a choke hold on a grizzly bear). Whether my brothers and I were learning to snowboard, trying to play guitar or going to South Africa, he and my mom encouraged us to pursue new endeavors.
This also may stem from my dad’s love of science. A biology major in college, my dad is now a dentist (I like to call him Dr. Tim Medicine Woman in tribute to the science-loving, pioneer protagonist of the television show I watched if Saved By The Bell and Hey Arnold weren’t on). Biology has led him to believe that before asking someone how to do something, it doesn’t hurt to try doing it on your own. A good case in point was the time he chastised me for not using the Scientific Method to determine why my printer wasn’t working. Just around the time I was deciding whether background research came before or after forming a hypothesis, my dad presented me with my printer, fixed and ready for action.
I certainly had a desire to try new things when deciding to travel to South Africa. I wanted, however, to be more adventurous not only in the things I was willing to try but in how I was willing to try them. I have no doubt that I used to take risks. But whenever I began trying to learn a new language, play a new instrument, or get accustomed to a new school, people who were ready to help were always close by. While this was very comforting, it was also sometimes very stifling.
Perhaps I had avoiding such the crutch of comfort in mind when I made the potentially stupid and quite certainly embarrassing decision of trying to surf without having received a lesson. Some of our group had decided to take an overnight trip to a nearby town called Muizenberg for a day of catching rays (check), mingling with the attractive locals (negative) and hopefully surfing.
We arrived and dropped our bags at the traveler’s lodge where we stayed. After a chat with the man who runs the place, an older bandana-wearing man called Dion (“Like Celine,” he told me), some of us headed to the beach while others went to grab lunch. After a few minutes of throwing a frisbee with my housemate Sam, I saw another housemate, Terry, approaching us with a wetsuit on and a surfboard in tow.
“How much is it?” we asked Terry.
“One hundred rand for a wetsuit and board for two and a half hours,” he replied.
One hundred rand is about $12, so we immediately realized our friend had landed a deal. But he had also landed this deal from someone who had offered us the same two-and-a-half-hour bargain with a lesson for 270 rand. Reasoning that a lesson would be unnecessarily expensive, boring and maybe even unhelpful, Sam and I went to collect wetsuits and boards. Fifteen minutes later, we were posing for the killer photo below and preparing to enter the ocean.
The idea, Terry told me, was to look behind until I saw my wave. As it neared, I was to lie flat with my stomach on the board, beginning a strong, fast front-crawl stroke with my arms. As the wave reached me, it would hopefully begin to carry me forward. Then I would push myself to my knees, rise to my feet and ride the wave to shore, all the while looking like a total badass.
There were a few holes in this plan. On Attempt #1, I was too far forward on the surfboard and when my wave came, the nose of the board sank under water. I was crestfallen…I hadn’t even had a cool wipeout to accompany my failure. Determined to get up, I paddled back into deeper water, carefully positioned myself further back on my board and waited a few moments before another wave came.
This time I got up. I had apparently positioned myself so I was neither too far forward nor too far backward on the board. As the wave approached, I paddled frantically, occasionally looking behind to see the wave swell larger and come closer. Once it caught me, I felt as though three sets of hands were lifting me above the water. I gingerly pushed myself to my knees, which wobbled as I slowly rose to my feet. Arms outstretched, I scanned the beach as I completed my five-or-six second ride, eventually falling as gracefully as a lanky 6’4” guy can.
I probably got up another five or so times that day and even rode a few waves all the way to the shore, but none of the rides could quite compare with the feeling of the first one. It was one of those all too rare senses of having accomplished something completely on one’s own.
As luck would have it, I got another chance to chart some new personal territory the very next day. As some of our group prepared to take the train back from Muizenberg to our house in Observatory, my housemate Ryan and I decided to stick around and hike a section of Table Mountain National Park that we hadn’t seen before.
I’m glad we did. Of the four major hikes we’ve had (including last Friday’s trek up Lion’s Head to view a gorgeous sunset along with a view of the lights of Cape Town’s night life), this was clearly the trail that the fewest number of feet had stepped on. Wildflowers marked the trails we sometimes followed and sometimes formed as we made our way towards rock walls that were formidable by our standards. Pulling ourselves to higher elevations, we eventually reached our desired destination: a cave. Called Dragon’s Cave, the cubby-like space had an opening that allowed us to look out across Fault’s Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and essentially how far we had come.
We continued on, every once in awhile stopping by a rock to share some victory wine. Soon, we had descended the mountain and were back on the road near the train station where we would board to head back to Obz. Surprised to find we had hiked about 5 km, we again celebrated by picking up gourmet snacks at a grocery store and fighting exhaustion, we finally hopped on our train, satisfied that we had gotten our time’s worth in Muizenberg.
It feels a little strange when I think about how much some of these things meant to me. Simply trying to surf is pretty inconsequential. But a month ago, I probably would have laughed at the idea of trying to do it without a lesson. There was also never any serious danger in the hike Ryan and I took Monday, but the fact that we were making new trails made me feel a sense of adventure that I never seemed to allow myself so much at home. Hell, I even felt proud of the fact that most of our house went to a South African Springboks rugby match Saturday; most of us don’t know all of the rules or even much of the scoring involved in the sport, but nonetheless, we went and tried to figure them out.
There is certainly nothing wrong with asking questions in a given situation, but sometimes, it pays to give something the old college try before trying to get someone’s help. We always run the risk of failing, and we probably often will. I tried making scrambled eggs for the first time Saturday, for example. They tasted like crap. But you know what? I tried again Sunday, and they were a little better.
I think part of studying abroad is putting oneself in situations where there is no choice but to try something without agenda, preparation or guidance. Sometimes, the effort will crash and burn (my egg-making escapade, my plan to teach students how to tune guitars, learning the moonwalk). But other times, we might surprise ourselves with what we are capable of.
It turns out catching a wave does put you on top of the world. Who knew?
I’ve really got to get out of the habit of naming blog posts after songs from The Sound of Music. But fear not faithful readers. It all ties in.
Yesterday was the kind of day one has to write a blog about. Meeting Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu calls for some kind of recognition.
We had been anticipating a service with Mr. Tutu for weeks. The plan was that we would get up early on a Friday morning, attend an Anglican service that he would preside over at St. George’s church and then go on to breakfast with him. The past few times we were to do this, however, the service was cancelled due to the archbishop having other scheduling commitments. So when we found out that we would actually get to attend the service this time, we knew how special it was.
Mr. Tutu, diminutive in stature but a historical giant for his role in bringing peace and reconciliation to South Africa after the fall of apartheid, entered a small section of the chapel and lead us through the service. Apart from the lack of music and a few word changes in some of the prayers, the service was not unlike the Catholic masses that much of our group is familiar with. When it came to the portion where a priest would typically give a homily, Mr. Tutu went around the small congregation of about 40 people and asked where everyone was from—Germany, Holland, the U.S. He warmly welcomed us and when the moment came for us to grant peace to those around us, he walked around the chapel, smiling and shaking our hands.
After the service, most of the congregation lined up to shake hands with Mr. Tutu and have him sign a book or postcard. I have been reading a copy of his book that I found in our house, so I brought along a piece of paper for Mr. Tutu to sign. As my turn came, however, I began to feel self-conscious about asking him for his autograph. At 77 years old, he was clearly becoming tired. I also felt a little presumptuous expecting someone I really don’t know to put his name on a piece of paper for me. Though we were all very glad to get his signature—because he is someone who we admire very much, through his work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in his strong stances against many injustices around the world—I felt almost as though I was treating him like a product or a historical statue rather than a man. Mr. Tutu did not seem to mind signing for us and is also probably quite used to signing autographs for people, but I found myself thinking about how important it is for me to value the people I meet in South Africa as humans rather than some caricatures I have in my mind.
This is a particularly important lesson at my work site. I feel like I may have come to South Africa with some preconceived notions about what it would mean for me to work with students in African schools. Like the plot of that generic Hallmark movie that seems to be remade every few years, I would arrive, struggle to connect with the students who so badly want to learn but have not had sufficient opportunities, reach some sort of a breakthrough, push them to success and then leave a better man all in time for the credits to roll to the tune of an inspirational Michael Bolton song. But like my naive initial impressions of Desmond Tutu, I realized that the students I’ll be working with are not flat characters in a movie. They’re kids: they like to run around during recess, sneak food into their mouths during class and talk while the teacher is.
At least that’s what I encountered when I began teaching reading lessons at St. Mary’s school in the township Nyanga last Monday. Though I had had initial meetings with employees of the Amy Biehl Foundation through which I’m working, as well as e-mail exchanges with Allison Schommer, the Marquette student who did a fantastic job at St. Mary’s last semester, I felt like a fish out of water as I prepared for my first lesson.
The roughly 10 students, all about 12 or 13 years old, trooped into a small room that also serves as a teacher’s lounge. They chattered in Xhosa as I prepared to address them. How do I organize class so they have fun yet improve their reading skills and learn? How do I maintain some sense of order and authority in the class while also being someone that they like and see as a friend? How do I, someone who has never taught before, even prepare a lesson? The students’ homeroom teacher had answered all of these questions with the same response: it was up to me. Empowering or terrifying?
We began the class with introductions—name, age, favorite school subject and favorite book. Apart from a girl named Cindy, I heard Xhosa names that are as foreign to me as the rules of rugby: Asihpe, Siyamptende, Thembisile. Learning the students names might be as challenging as learning how to teach.
Then we moved on to talk about what the class would entail. This was their course, I told them. What do they want to read? How can I help them? What would they like to learn about? I was surprised and impressed by some of their answers:
-“Long Walk To Freedom,” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. This is an excellent book, but it is very large and dense. I’ve heard people my age regal it as “too long” and “never-ending.”
-Steve Biko. I attended an exhibit Friday about this young revolutionary who was murdered at the hands of South Africa’s repressive police force in 1977. Immortalized in the memories of those who believed in what he stood for (and by Peter Gabriel’s song Biko) I was thrilled that the students wanted to learn more about him, because I do, as well.
-Twilight. I’ll have to swallow my pride on that one, but it might provide a nice opportunity for the students to come to our Kimberley House to watch the movie based on the book. The students told me that my predecessor Allison had them over to watch The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and eat her homemade dinner. They expect nothing less from me. Thanks for setting that bar, Allison.
After I teach reading classes, I go on to another township school to teach guitar lessons in an after-school program. This, in a way, was even more daunting than giving reading lessons. I had already witnessed the excellent marimba class offered at the program, and though I consider myself a proficient guitarist, I have never taught the instrument and am poor at reading music. I decided to teach the 10 or so students to tune the guitars so they could get their hands on the instruments while learning a very necessary aspect of playing them.
Bad idea. Tuning guitars is as boring as Driving Miss Daisy, and I soon lost the students’ attention. I returned the second day determined and intent on teaching them some chords and a song, hopefully empowering them in their new knowledge of how to play something on the guitar. I had decided on Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer when the students asked me to show them the Do-Re-Mi scale. Taking the opportunity, I showed them how to play the scale on the low E string and then explained how this scale could be used on the guitar’s five other strings. While an invisible orchestra didn’t kick in to back me the way one did for Julie Andrews when she taught those adorable little Germans the Do-Re-Mi scale, I still feel like I learned an important lesson in teaching: come with a plan but be flexible.
Flexibility is probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from this experience so far (which is ironic because I learned last week that I’m double jointed). I have had many plans about what this trip will mean for me and what I will learn from classes, my work site and Cape Town’s culture. Sometimes my plans have panned out. Sometimes they haven’t. I certainly didn’t expect to walk away from Desmond Tutu’s service thinking about how I value people, and I certainly didn’t expect that I would be reading Twilight with a group of South African 12-year-olds. Sometimes all you can do is go along with what comes your way, using your plans when you can, changing course when necessary, and trusting that in all of the crazy things that happen, there is a lesson to be learned.
Begin Michael Bolton song…now.
I feel a little bit like a new mother when I talk about Cape Town; everything is framed in terms of “firsts.” But while a new mom would talk about her baby’s first smile, first bath and first night of sleep without crying, I find myself thinking about the first time I climbed Table Mountain, the first time first time I correctly pronounced someone’s name and the first time I ate a Gatsby, a ridiculous sub sandwich with greasy meat and French fries on the bread.
We’re now beginning our fourth week in Cape Town and as those firsts turn into seconds and thirds, we are becoming acclimated with what will be our schedule for the next four months. We’ve completed our second week of classes and many of us have already turned in assignments. Most members of our group met this past week with the service site coordinators who will help us organize the service work we’ll be doing in correlation with our Leaders in Grassroots Organizations class. We’ve even established that Sunday will be the day each week that we all share a meal together…like a real family. Uncle Brian can’t wait to unleash his Class A spaghetti on the house.
It is very exciting to begin feeling normal in a new culture, because that at least partly indicates a sense of comfort with a way of life that was once completely unfamiliar. On the second day I went to the Nyanga township where I will be teaching guitar lessons in an after-school program, the children who attend the program’s music, sports, and cultural awareness classes were familiar faces. (The boy below is a three-year-old named Asa. Though he is too young to attend the program, he pushes a chair from class to class as though it is a car and is referred to by students and staff as the school’s principal.)
As I attended classes for the second time, we moved past the introductory phase and into the real issues we will be talking about: the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, inescapable poverty in the city’s townships, and the theology of reconciliation and forgiveness in a country that knows these topics better than most.
While I am thrilled to be getting used to things here, I am also conscious of not wanting to fall into too much of a routine. I think the more times I repeat an activity, whether it is teaching a class, going to a grocery store or eating at a certain restaurant, the more likely I am to stop paying as much attention to what I’m doing. If my life is full of the same activities every day, chances are I’ll be missing a lot.
Even though we’re still in the early stages of our trip, we’ve been conscious of trying new things. Saturday, Ryan Corr and I climbed towards Devil’s Peak, a more rugged but smaller summit than Table Mountain. We made sure we wore our outdoorsy but unnecessary camping backpacks to indicate to everyone we passed how extreme we were.
Others in the group watched a rugby match, which is also pretty foreign to people used to football, basketball and baseball. Sunday, we took a rafting trip down the Palmiet River and found ourselves surrounded by grassy mountains that looked like they came straight out of the Lord of the Rings. Not wanting the comparison to end there, our landlord David referred to his raft as his precious. He’s a pretty interesting guy.
We even went to a karaoke bar Saturday night, which was a first for this guy. I may or may not have sang a Backstreet Boys song. Add that to the list of best choices I’ve ever made.
We all still have a lot of things on our “To Do In South Africa” list (and on “The Best Choices Ever Made” list), and it’s important that we make sure to keep hitting points on that list. Getting used to a schedule is great and will probably help in making us feel normal in a new culture. I have a feeling, however, that continuing to try new things is what’s going to make us feel alive here.
At best, I’m reluctant to post a blog based on the title of a song from “The Sound of Music,” but when life gives you lemons…
Today we climbed Table Mountain. As far as I know it hasn’t made the cut as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but whoever decides those kinds of things should get this beauty on the list pronto. After many days of rain and planning schedules, we decided it was time to take advantage of the sunshine and celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday with good, old-fashioned Mother Nature.
Because some members of our group had climbed a few days earlier, they were set on improving on the time it took them to reach the summit. It was hard not to stop as we climbed, however, because a) climbing a mountain is tiring and b) each time we turned around, the scenery was more gorgeous than before. We each took countless photos but agreed that they couldn’t quite capture what we were seeing for ourselves.
It’s funny what a hike like that can do for your perspective. As I climbed higher and higher on the stony path, occasionally washing my face in spring water or stopping to catch the view from a patch of grass on a rock, all of the little things that had been bothering me throughout the week or even that morning seemed to drift away. All that seemed to matter in our lives during the few hours we spent at the top of the mountain was that we were there.
We enjoyed the breathtaking view of Cape Town for awhile, but it was eventually time to make the climb back down, which was surprisingly more difficult than the climb up. We played the Alphabet Movie Game (Theresa and I: 6, Ryan and Cate: 1) and then took a cab to the beach to grab a bite and watch the sunset. It seemed an appropriate way to end the day.
The group decided we should climb Table Mountain regularly, especially when we are feeling burdened or stressed by whatever else is going on in our lives. Climbing had apparently been as therapeutic for everyone else as it had been for me.
But it makes sense. I’m glad we had a chance to take in that beautiful view of Cape Town, to look out over all of the city’s buildings, the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the mountain. It was important that we took that moment to rest and appreciate how far we’d come. In the coming months, we will have a lot of mountains–proverbial and real–to climb: at our service sites, at school, in the countless other ways we’ll learn and grow, and as we explore Table Mountain’s other trails.
Nelson Mandela once said, “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment…” Like today, we’ll continue to have those moments where we need to stop and take in what we’ve done and all that surrounds us. And then we’ll keep climbing.
If our experience in South Africa were a honeymoon–South Africa being the bride and me being the groom, of course–this Sunday would have been the day we got back from Hawaii to find a leak in the roof and a message from the best man asking to have the toaster he gave you back so he can make Pop Tarts.
The leak in the roof part is more than symbolic; Cape Town apparently saw its largest rainfall in 52 years Sunday and in a fit of generosity, our Kimberley House roof decided to share some of the water with our kitchen floor. Thanks!
Past participants in this program told us that the first few weeks were both extremely enriching and at times frustrating. But after the first week of visiting our work sites, standing at the top of Signal Hill, planning to climb Table Mountain and experiencing some of the city’s most beautiful and captivating attractions, we may have overlooked some of the reasons we are here; namely to work and study.
The study part began to kick in this week. We have been at the University of the Western Cape each day since Monday, attending the multiple classes we signed up for and trying to find a way to build a schedule that allows for us to be on campus two days a week (we need two days for our work sites and one day for the two courses we are required to take) and classes to transfer back to Marquette. Because teachers often don’t show up for classes during the first week and the classes they do show up for are often relocated, some of us still have unanswered questions about what classes we will be able to take, what classes will transfer back to Marquette and what classes we should take to make the most of our time in Cape Town. As I pored over course schedules in the UWC Student Centre and sat in empty lecture halls only to realize that the class had been re-scheduled to a building across campus, I felt as helpless and confused as I had my first day of freshman year.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I used to think about studying abroad in South Africa, every aspect was glossed over with an unrealistic, paradise-like allure: a sun that shines perpetually, ocean waves made for surfing, exotic foreign food that always agrees with your stomach and streets made for walking barefoot. Not only does this place not exist; it isn’t why we’re here.
This is an immersion program. We’ve come to live amongst Cape Town’s citizens, not experience the city’s best attractions from the confines of a tour bus. This means going to school and our work sites, grocery shopping and cooking (which has already given me a new appreciation for what my mom does for my family every day) and balancing money, schedules and activities. None of this may sound as glamorous as sitting by the waterfront or taking safaris every day, but I doubt people who live in Hawaii surf every day either.
The funny thing is that the more we’ve begun to fall into a schedule, the more I’ve felt connected with this city. The names of stores and restaurants are becoming as commonplace as those on Marquette’s campus. We’ve made UWC friends who we spend time with off-campus. One of our housemates even joined the water polo team at UWC. A little regularity that extends beyond tourism can go a long way in making you feel at home.
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For the first time since Saturday, today saw the sun was out the whole day. It was the first sunny day since we made the transition from feeling like tourists to feeling like Cape Town regulars. One of the first things I remember hearing when we got to Cape Town was that you can experience all four seasons in a day here…warm and sunny vs. cold and rainy. You have to spend a little time in a city before you appreciate all of those dimensions: the good weather, the bad weather, the beauty of Table Mountain and the deprivation of the township shacks. Our relationship with Cape Town hasn’t yet reached the point where we’ve experienced the city at both its best and worst, and Cape Town has yet to see the best we have and our most challenging struggles. And though as far as I know I’ve never been married, the more time we spend here, the more we move past the blind satisfaction of a honeymoon and into a more wholesome appreciation and understanding in what is shaping up to be a long relationship.
Hey-oh for the metaphor?