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.