Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Farewell, Cape Town.

This final blog post is dedicated to the fifteen people with whom I have lived for the past five months, and also to Angela and Ronel, who are largely responsible for making this program possible. On Thursday evening at our “Closing the Circle” reflection session, I opted not to share my final thoughts right then and indicated that I would prefer to share my thoughts in written form. This, bhutis and sisis, is for you. This is for each of one you.

There are many things that I am good at, but saying goodbye has never been one of them. In all of the summer camps and programs and teams that I’ve ever been a part of, I dread the anticipation of separating yet again from human beings with whom I have woven some sort of web connecting the two of us within some larger entanglement with humanity. Perhaps this is part of the reason that, prior to arriving in South Africa, I had consciously prepared myself for the fact that these were temporary relationships I would be forming, and that maintaining some distance between those with whom I could potentially form relationships would make it easier to leave at the end.

Well, on Saturday I discovered that this is impossible, that forming relationships with people is something that happens despite even our greatest efforts to prevent this very thing from occurring. This is what my tears from Saturday taught me. Each of you has revealed to me something about the hidden mysteries of life. Many of you have shown me parts of me that I did not know existed; others of you confirmed for me things that I did know and, for this, I thank you.

More than anything else, for me, this semester has been one of personal growth and self-discovery. I am not the same person as when I arrived in Cape Town in January. Many things about me are the same – I still don’t enjoy going out to clubs or bars (they really are all the same to me), I still like to go to bed before midnight and to wake up early in the morning, and I still like to have a clean room and kitchen. But many things have also changed. As an individual I have grown more confident in myself and my own authority to make decisions, even when those decisions – whether that decision be to not go to Long Street with the masses, or to hop a flight to India – do not seem reasonable or rational to others; they make sense to me, and at the end of the day, it is me to whom I have to answer and who holds myself accountable for my decisions and actions. Many of you have supported me and encouraged me to have the strength to make and follow through with these decisions, particularly regarding the latter (India).

Naturally, I became closer with some of you than others; but know that each of you has played a significant role in shaping the person I am becoming, whether by challenging my own beliefs and attitudes or through the friendship we have formed over the past few months. I will not make “shout outs” here – you know who you are. Regardless of whether or not we ever have the privilege of meeting again, I will hold you dear to my heart indefinitely and am glad that you were able to join me during this portion of my life journey.

Aside from my personal development, there is also my experience of Africa. I was guilty of falling victim to the belief that Africa was in need of saving. Many of you will recall my enthusiasm to teach in South Africa; perhaps this was the way I had envisioned “saving” the children here. But after a few visits at Mannenberg and Masiyile, I felt that doing service at those schools would be emotionally and physically draining – not to mention that it would have been virtually impossible for me to maintain distance from those children. For this reason, and also because I have had quite a bit of experience working in school settings, I opted to work with Equal Education, which I imagined would allow me to further my experience in the area of education but through a different approach than ever I had taken before. (You all have heard more than enough about our experiences at Equal Education, so I will not belabor it here. I am glad for the experiences I had with EE and do not regret it, but if I had to choose all over again, I would have stayed with my gut instinct to go to Mannenberg and I would have immersed myself with those kids to the point that leaving them in June would have been almost impossible.) To Betsy and Laurie, I really admire your dedication to those kids and all of the efforts you made for them.

The point that I was trying to come to in the previous paragraph is one that I mentioned in an earlier blog post, namely that Africa is not in need of being saved. She does need our charity, or our missionaries, or any other kind of aid. And if She does, She knows where to find us. Yes, there are many problems in South Africa, most if not all of which are lingering legacies of Apartheid. But what country is without problems? When people hear “South Africa” they think of crime, Apartheid, murder, injustice, corruption, destitute poverty, Nelson Mandela, and Jacob Zuma’s denial of a link between HIV and AIDS. When I think of South Africa – and especially of Cape Town – I think of a microcosm of many worlds where injustice has been done yet life continues; a diaspora of skin colours and languages and income levels; a country with little hope for the future yet which does have a hopeful future.

At the moment I am safe and sound in India, where I have again found myself dropped into a country so different from anything I have ever known that it seems surreal.

And so here I say farewell to my blog. Thanks to all who have been accompanying me on my journey.

All is van die beste. Sayonara. Namaste.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Getting Closer

I officially have only one day left in Cape Town, a fact that really hit me for the first time when we were driving home from Khayelitsha two nights ago. It is only a fraction of my life that I have been here, but in that small fraction, this place has also become my home. I have carved out a small space for myself here. I have a temporary home, I can cross the roads with ease, and I can use public transportation. I can speak a few words in Afrikaans, and fewer in Xhosa. On a few occasions I have even been mistaken for South African and asked for directions. In many ways I feel I have been absorbed into Cape Town, in its spoken dialects, body language, elocution, and mannerisms. I can eat (though less gracefully than true South Africans) without utensils, and though I still enjoy my personal space, my bubble has gotten smaller.

In many ways though, I’m still very American, and I’m sure I will realize this even more after I return home. I miss being able to wash my hands with soap whenever I use a public restroom. I enjoy being able to use the restroom without first having to purchase toilet paper by the square. I miss being able to walk outside at night, alone even, without heightened senses. I like when my milk can last longer than 3 or 4 days before spoiling. I like the orderliness of traffic and when people abide by the traffic light signals even when there is no one else around (this usually happens here, but not always). I like that teachers should have less than 30 students per class, and that libraries should not be luxuries in schools. I like that, though there are socioeconomic disparities in the US, they are less so along racial lines (though we still have a long way to go in this matter).

Though my time here is nearing its end, our program matters will not end until we get to the airport. Last evening I gave my final presentation on the factors affecting quality teaching and learning in South Africa, and I now all I have left is to complete my final research report on the same topic, which I anticipate accomplishing later today. And finally, one last trip to the market in town. Then all that is left is packing my suitcase, deciding what to take with and what to leave behind, and understanding how these last five months of people, challenges, and experiences are going to impact the rest of my life; and the latter is not something that can be stuffed in a suitcase.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Beginning of the End

All good things come to an end, or so they say. With seven days left in Cape Town, I think it is safe to say that this is the beginning of the end of my semester in South Africa. That is not to say that I will not one day return to this rainbow nation characterized, in my mind, by cash store names in white letters on bright red Coca-Cola backgrounds in the townships; vuvuzelas; rugby (and this year, the 2010 FIFA World Cup); overcrowded, often uninsured, yet efficient and economical taxis; Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela; ubuntu; a multiplicity of languages; a multiplicity of skin colours; university couples who are less shy than Americans to display their affection in public; the university students' fashionable dress (no sweatpants here!); the spontaneous Xhosa songs and dances that burst out while waiting for the bus, or riding the bus, or getting off the bus, or walking to class, or in the middle of the day at Equal Education, or...; British English spellings of words; British-style school uniforms (e.g. shirts and sweaters, which are entirely inappropriate when the temperatures are in the mid- upper-80s Fahrenheit; the overwhelming presence of meat in people's diets; mothers carrying babies and toddlers on their backs, holding them tight in place by tying a blanket or towel around them; the outfits that the Xhosa boys wear after returning from the ceremonies in which they become men; the ability to use the mountain as a geographical reference and permanent compass; the sunshine, the sunburn; the people who don't have homes; the number of people who tried telling me (a Christian) why I should believe in God; the white pastor preaching to a black congregation (save for me and Lin-Lin, who is Chinese); historically black primary and secondary schools whose pupil:teacher ratio is something like 40:1; the clear demarcations between poor townships and million-dollar homes; herders herding their goats and cattle across the N2; the seemingly carefree pace of life; a "holiday" nation; the cycle of poverty; the numerous legacies of apartheid; the hospitality of most of the South Africans I had the privilege of meeting; the prostitutes that stand on the street corners late at night; the man beating the woman on the side of the street, and feeling so helpless that I could do nothing but watch from inside the bus window; a dual sense of hopefulness and hopelessness; a future.

I'm not sure where this post was headed, but this is where it seems to end: a future. If there is one thing I have learned over the past four-and-a-half months, it is that everything Africa needs to succeed, She already has within and among her. Africa doesn't need our charity, our missionaries, or our approval. And my thoughts seem to end abruptly right here, right now. I suspect that the coming week will be a week of intense reflection, as well as mental preparation to close this chapter and open the next. Here's to the beginning of the end.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

12 days more in Cape Town

It's hard to believe how fast my time in Cape Town has gone, and how few days are left. The fact that our program ends in 12 days is beginning to sink in, and we are beginning to realize how close our group of service-learners has grown over the past four months. Despite our cornucopia of personalities and interests, doing service is the one thing we all have in common, the one thing that bonds us all together. And after leaving any type of group program such as this, there is always some small feeling of disappointment when you are no longer around people who understand certain jokes.

As I begin to mentally prepare myself to end one journey and begin another, I'd like to take a few minutes to reflect on (1) some of my favorite things about South Africa; (2) some of the things I took for granted back home; and (3) some of the new words and meanings I've learned. I'm sure I'll add onto these lists in the next several days.

1. Some of my favorite things about South Africa

- The ketchup. They call it tomato sous, but it's ketchup. It looks the same, but it's 10 times sweeter than the ketchup back home. It caught my taste buds off-guard the first time I had it, but I've come to like it sweet.

- Acquiring a bit of an accent. I don't consider it a bad thing to be able to immerse oneself in a culture so much that one's own language begins to take the shape of the host culture. I've found myself unintentionally using distinctly South African phrases and inflecting my voice in patterns that are more South African than American.

- Being mistaken for a South African. Much to my surprise, this has happened on a few occasions. It's a nice feeling though, really. Some people never overcome the stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb-tourist-phase; I consider this ability to assimilate with a new culture a gift.

- Taxis. The taxis in South Africa are what we would call mini-buses back home. The taxis are run by the Coloured population, are often overcrowded, and frequently uninsured, but they are an efficient and economical way to get into the centre of Cape Town, and it only costs about US $1. It's a great system, in my opinion, as long as the taxis aren't on strike.

- The BIG university setting. I think this one speaks for itself. Ursinus is going to feel even smaller after being at the University of Cape Town. I've enjoyed the anonymity of it all.

- Table Mountain. I'm going to miss seeing the mountain towering over me every morning.

- South African Sunshine. All these hours of daylight and sunshine have been great for my spirit - and acne!

- Being able to walk barefoot anywhere you please.

- Internet. I definitely took fast and free internet for granted. Never again!

2. Some of the things I took for granted back home: grated cheese, chocolate chips, M&M's, drying machine (for clothes), milk that doesn't spoil after five days, my car

3. Some of the new words and meanings I've learned

- Chips = French fries (potato chips are also called chips, so to distinguish between the two you can say "hot chips" to refer to fries)
- Petrol = gasoline
- Boot = trunk of a car
- Takkies = sneakers
- Speed hump = like a speed bump only wider, so it's more of a hump than a bump
- Hoot = honk, as in "Please don't hoot your horn."
- Learners = students
- Robot = traffic light (thought I admit I didn't hear this used too often)
- "Just now" = a phrase used to indicate time; it could mean 2 minutes, 15 minutes, half an hour, 4 hours, or never
- "Now now" = right now
- Howzit? = What's up? (An appropriate response would be "cool, and you?")

And, I'll conclude with a couple of pictures from the recent talent show we hosted for the learners from Equal Education...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Photos: Buffelsfontein

This past weekend was our Reflection Weekend at Buffelsfontein Game Reserve. Overall it was a very nice weekend in the bush, complete with African wildlife, a thatch-roofed hut, and fine cuisine. (Watching the lions devour those raw chickens with their massive canines made me glad for my decision not to eat meat.) But as far as I can tell, the general consensus seems to be that we had spent more time reflecting on our personal growth and transforming experiences rather than just constructively critiquing the study abroad program. Nevertheless, here are some pictures from the weekend...

The thatch-roofed hut where we stayed. (It's more aesthetically pleasing than practical, judging from the puddles we discovered the morning after the rainstorm!)


Mama and Baby.

Welcome to Darling, where my yogurt and milk are made.

This was outside a theatre of the comedian Evita se Perron. I had never heard of this person, so I didn't take any photos, but we had fun with this photo-opp.

A picturesque road in Darling.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


The house where I'm staying.

The view from the bus stop. I'm going to miss seeing these mountains every morning.

Walking to Upper Campus.

Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. All the traditional homemade Afrikan crafts you could imagine.

Saturday Mass

Yesterday morning I was fortunate to attend a Mass of Thanksgiving in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Michael Lapsley’s survival of a brutal attack by the South African apartheid government. This was only the second Catholic Mass that I have attended, but I dare say it was the single religious service where I have most felt the omnipresence of God. Many things contributed to this experience I’m sure – the ornate architecture of the cathedral, the rainbow of skin colours of the congregation and Fathers, the flickering candles, the statues of Jesus and Mary, the crucifix, and the perfume of burning incense that dispersed through the air around us. The service was also multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-national, and multi-lingual.

When I decided to attend the service I knew nothing of Father Lapsley, the man, or his story. In fact my decision to attend was based on the fact that the anti-apartheid activist and archbishop Desmond Tutu (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and Gandhi Peace Prize, among numerous others) was presiding over the service. Tutu is also one of the proponents of “ubuntu,” a collective concept that translates roughly as “I am human because we all are human”, and one that I am thinking to explore in-depth during the year following my graduation. Despite my reverence for Tutu, I was equally inspired by the spirit of Father Lapsley. I have included Father Lapsley’s narrative below because I believe it is one worth reading, and I know that many of you will not read it unless I include it here (and some of you will still skip over it, and that’s okay, too):

Michael Lapsley (South Africa)

After Father Michael Lapsley was exiled by the South African Government in 1976, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became one of their chaplains. Whilst living in Zimbabwe he discovered he was on the South African Government hit list. In April 1990 he received a letter bomb in the post. He now runs the Institute for Healing Memories in Cape Town.

No one told me why I was being exiled. But as a university chaplain, and in the wake of the Soweto uprising (when students were being detained and tortured) I was no friend to the apartheid regime. In exile I therefore became a target of the South African government.

I had long ago come to the conclusion that there was no road to freedom except via the route of self-sacrifice, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to follow. Three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, I received a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines that had been posted from South Africa. In the bomb blast I lost both hands, one eye and had my eardrums shattered.

For the first three months I was as helpless as a newborn baby. People have asked me how I survived, and my only answer is that somehow, in the midst of the bombing, I felt that God was present. I also received so many messages of love and support from around the world that I was able to make my bombing redemptive – to bring life out of death, good out of evil.

Quite early on after the bomb I realised that if I was filled with hatred and desire for revenge I’d be a victim forever. If we have something done to us, we are victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors. Sadly, many people never travel any further than this. I did travel further, going from victim to survivor, to victor. To become a victor is to move from being an object of history to become a subject once more. That is not to say that I will not always grieve what I’ve lost, because I will permanently bear the marks of disfigurement. Yet I believe I’ve gained through this experience. I realise that I can be more of a priest with no hands than with two hands.

In 1992, I returned to South Africa to find a nation of survivors, but a damaged nation. Everyone had a story – a truth – to tell. In my work I’ve developed a programme called the Healing of Memories. Our workshops explore the effects of South Africa’s past at an emotional, psychological and spiritual level. I try to support those who have suffered as they struggle to have their stories recognised.

I haven’t forgiven anyone, because I have no one to forgive. No one was charged with this crime, and so for me forgiveness is still an abstract concept. But if I knew that the people who sent my bomb were now in prison, then I’d happily unlock the gates – although I’d like to know that they weren’t going to make any more bombs. I believe in restorative justice and I believe in reparation. So my attitude to the perpetrator is this: I’ll forgive them, but since I’ll never get my hands back, and will therefore always need someone to help me, they should pay that person’s wages. Not as a condition of forgiveness, but as part of reparation and restitution.


I still find it hard to believe that something this brutal happened in my lifetime, and I cannot comprehend that similar acts of violence, suffering, and torture are occurring even as I am writing this. To think of all of the so-called achievements and progress that we as humans have made, while knowing that we are simultaneously unable to control our rage and anger in a humane manner, is an absolute embarrassment to the human race.

My semester abroad has been and continues to be very much a search within myself, often through the lives of others. Religion and spirituality has been one of the more subtle avenues of this self-searching journey, but is just as important, in my opinion. Thus there were certain excerpts from Father Lapsley’s remarks at yesterday’s Mass that I especially appreciated:

It is not an accident that we began with an Islamic and a Buddhist prayer. I have long believed that the future of humanity is an interfaith future in which we need to [have] reverence and learn from each other’s faith traditions including traditional beliefs but I also have the deepest respect for my atheist, agnostic, and communist friends.”
The congregation laughed enthusiastically after this last statement, much to my amusement. I am including the following two excerpts simply because I like them:

Traveling the world has taught me that we are one human family capable of the most horrendous deeds. Just a few days ago I visited the genocide site in Srebenica in Bosnia. At the same time we are all capable and called to tenderness, kindness, generosity and compassion.

Often through the years I have asked myself why I survived a bomb that was supposed to kill me when so many others died, who also deserved to live. I guess that some of us had to survive to be living reminders of what we in this country idd to each other. But a thousand time[s] more importantly, I hope I can be a small sign that stronger than evil, and hatred and death, is goodness, compassion, love and life – indeed of God.

Tutu is also a funny character, though I admit I was more than a little disappointed when he didn’t shake my hand. Prior to giving his closing remarks Tutu, referring to the small square bandage on the back of his nearly-bald head, said to the congregation, “I know you all are wondering what happened to my head. Instead of praying, you were wondering.” Everyone laughed. Tutu continued, “A dermatologist drilled through my head. And found nothing.” Again the congregation – and Tutu – roar in laughter. A nice time at the cathedral indeed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sea Kayaking

This post is comparably dull, but I just wanted it to go on the record that today we went sea kayaking in Simon's Town. The weather was beautiful, the water was wet (and salty), and we saw seals about 10 feet away from our kayak. Well, the seals might have been 20 feet away, but they were pretty darn close. They would come up above the water wringing fish this way and that. The food chain in action! We also got quite close to the African (Jackass) penguins. However, when they saw the seal thrashing the fish about in the water, they backed their littles selves right back up the rock where they were standing. Smart birds. What a great day to be on the water.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Make Plans to Break Plans

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." -John Lennon

There is a certain amount of planning that should take place in one’s life, an amount that should not be exceeded. We make a plan, and that plan begins as our plan. But as we begin to execute the plan, it becomes someone, or something, else’s. We only have a certain amount of control over our lives. The rest is up to some other cosmic being, or a web of human interconnectedness, or some intricate global balancing scale. Or chance—coincidence, if you will. Call it whatever you’d like, but I prefer to think that there is a reason for everything that happens.

This afternoon Laurie and I were on a mission: We would go into the city centre to the Harley-Davidson shop there to purchase gifts for our motorcycle-loving fathers. (It is very easy to choose a gift when your father is fond of Harley-Davidsons, and I am grateful for this!) Had we not stopped for coffee and postcards, we would have arrived at the shop before it closed. As it would be, we arrived at 2:03. That’s 3 minutes past 14:00. So we laughed at ourselves, rejoiced at the fact that yes, we could indeed navigate our way through the city, and proceeded with the rest of our plan.

The main event of our day was to go to the Bookery – a room somewhere in town that Equal Education has rented so as to collect books that will soon be donated to a school library. Laurie and I were going to help laminate the covers of the 3,000 books that will soon be donated. The many security guards (who are extremely friendly and helpful, by the way) were kind enough to point us in the right direction when our own sense of direction was becoming less keen. When we were probably about 5 minutes from our destination, we noticed that a filming was taking place on a side street we were passing. So naturally we observed for a few minutes what was going on, wondered if we were trespassing on some sacred piece of ground, decided it was okay, and continued walking further down Commercial Street.

Although this particular street is not the Hollywood of filming commercials, this particular filming did in fact turn out to be for a Coca-Cola commercial. Standing on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall of a building, we watched the set crew fasten the “sun” – a huge stage light covered with tinted film – to the outside of the bus. Inside the bus, a makeup artist was touching up the faces of a dreamy blond-haired boy and a pleasantly plump white-haired granny. We waved to the granny whose eyes had met ours, and her face lit up. She smiled a great big joyful smile, the kind that only a white-haired grandmother can smile.

A few minutes later I noticed a gentleman standing to my left. Oh, another spectator, I thought. I continued watching the set crew balance carefully atop ladders, working adamantly to properly attach the sun to the side of the bus. I was enjoying watching the whole process play itself out, remembering the many stories my sister shared with me about her experiences working on a film set (for the movie “The Fields”) as a makeup artist. It is really an excruciatingly long process. The older gentleman nudged my arm and struck up a conversation. He, it turns out, has been married to the white-haired granny on the bus for 41 years.

Standing to the left of the white-haired granny’s white-haired husband was a short, plump, Indian man sporting a plaid cap and a blue apron. In the commercial, he would be the worker at the concession stand. And so, as the granny’s husband and the short, plump, Indian man waited on set, Laurie and I engaged in a conversation that would last for three hours. Yes, we spent the remainder of our afternoon standing along Commercial Street watching the bus with a pseudo-sun move forward and backward, take after take, until we moved inside to the wardrobe where we sat around so as to escape the Cape Town winds.

For about the first 15 minutes I was checking the time on my phone regularly, as I felt compelled to get to the Bookery, where we had planned to spend the majority of our afternoon covering books. But I never expected to come across the filming of a Coca-Cola commercial on a side street in the middle of the city in South Africa. And so I decided that this was an opportunity to be seized, and that the Bookery would be okay without my volunteering there today (I was feeling only slightly guilty for this).

What I enjoyed far more than the fact that I was watching the filming of a commercial that I will be able to view on television in approximately 13 days was the sharing of stories that happened among the four of us. This world is a remarkable place, and it is filled with remarkable people, each with a story of one’s own.

The granny’s husband (who was himself an actor in the movie, “Doomsday,” as well as an Israeli film and Mexican film of which he cannot remember the names) met the granny at the dance studio she opened up when she was only 16. She had studied ballet, enrolled at a school in England when she was 15, attended school for one year, and opened up her own studio outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The granny’s husband (his real name is Roger Pote) signed up to take classes, and she was his teacher. He doesn’t remember how old they were when they were married, but they have been married for 41 years, and he is 68. (As we are talking he fiddles with something in his pant pocket and opens his hand to see what he’s found – it a pair of pearl clip-on earrings, which I assume belong to granny.) Somewhere in between meeting each other and getting married, the granny was in England and the two of them corresponded by letter. This, he pointed out, was before the advent of email and mobile phones, which again made me thankful to have this technology today.

The plump Indian man (Vijay Lalla) met his wife in some sort of shop. He was a customer and she the cashier. He was taken aback by her beauty and felt he had to introduce himself to her. And that was that. They have been married for… 31 years? 34? Since I had yet to meet an Indian practicing Hinduism in South Africa, I asked if he was Muslim. Then I realized that I had just met my first South African, Hindu, Indian. This came as a pleasant surprise. My kêrel is Hindu, I said, practicing what little Afrikaans I know. (Earlier that day I spoke in Xhosa to a restaurant worker, who also gave us directions.) Vijay’s parents were born and raised in Southern India, had a traditional Indian wedding, and moved to South Africa with the hopes of escaping the poverty they had known in India. (However, Roger informed me that South Africa is moving backward, and that the poverty here is getting worse.) Vijay and his wife also had a traditional wedding, and they continue to live in South Africa.

Oh, it was a great day—far better than any I could have planned. The past few days I have felt as though I am on some sort of high. Today I realize that I am feeding off of the energy of the magnificence of the ordinary people around me. Yes, it’s true. I will say it again, that every single person in this world has a story to tell, if people would only listen.

Vijay offered to take Laurie and I home, an offer which we accepted but later turned down as it was getting late and we were growing tired and in dire need of a toilet. Earlier in the afternoon Roger and Vijay had suggested that we turn our purses around when we carry them, or we are likely to get pick-pocketed. Also, we should make sure to leave before dark, before 6. So at 5:00 PM we hopped a taxi back home, grateful for a day that went nothing as planned and buzzing from the energy of hours of hearty conversation. Next weekend I am thinking to make more plans, merely so they can be broken.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Great Day

Today was a great day. Aly and I went shopping with three of the girls (Nokubonga, Nomzekelo, and Linda) at Kenilworth Centre near Claremont. It took the girls more than two and a half hours to get to the mall, as they came by train from Khayelitsha; when the train got stuck on the tracks they had to take a taxi the rest of the way. Oh, we had a great time. My goal was to find a pair of blue jeans and possibly a plain long-sleeve cotton shirt. The girls adamantly informed me that I do not have a sense of style, and before I knew it I was in the fitting room with an armful of clothing, including a brilliant yellow and rich fuschia jacket that I had no intentions of buying. (They wouldn’t even let me take the plaid shirt into the fitting room.) Still, they insisted that I acquire something fashionable and so, being the good sport that I am, I tried on all of the clothing they had hand-picked especially for my unfashionable self and modeled each piece for them. And so I left the store with a pair of “skinny jeans” which I described to them as feeling glued to my legs. They downplayed my complaint and explained that this is precisely what skinny jeans are supposed to feel like – that’s why they’re called skinny jeans!

I’ve never been much of a shopper, so I especially enjoyed the after-shopping affairs. After our shopping adventure was complete, we went to the grocery store to get some foodstuffs to take home for dinner, as the girls would hang out with us for a bit at our house near campus. So, on our dinner table, we had a heaping plate of homemade hot chips (French fries) with salt and vinegar, a loaf of white bread, a Styrofoam box of baked chicken, pea and onion samosas, and a bottle of Coke. Aly commented that this was just like having lunch at Equal Education, but with plates! I can never forget the first time I saw these kids eating chips on bread (French fries on bread, that is). I could feel my arteries clogging with every bite.

My favorite time of the entire was after dinner when we all sat on the floor in the living room, playing guitar and singing. First we sang Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, complete with harmony and everyone joining in full force on each chorus. Afterward we sang some songs in Xhosa, drawing a crowd of housemates who were keen to listen in. There is something about trying to speak or sing in another language that truly draws different language speakers together; it is as if the honest desire and attempt to understand the other person is more important than whether or not you can actually accomplish this.

Before we knew it the night was over, and the girls had to catch a taxi home. Next time, we decided, we need to make this an all-night affair. No shopping, just hanging out together. Perhaps we’ll have a sleepover. And, before we leave South Africa, we’re going to make a recording of some of our favorite songs. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Creeper Who Followed Me Home

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that I have a sign on my forehead that reads “In Need of Salvation,” a blatant statement to the world that I have fallen from grace.

Note: I am posting this with the knowledge that this post is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but that’s okay. I’m posting it anyway. You can stop reading now if you so desire.

As I was about to leave Upper Campus just now, a man who introduced himself as Jonathan* began talking to me, asking me my name and where I come from. The United States, I said. Yes, you are right, I do not sound Capetonian. Jonathan, it turns out, is a pastor on campus, and it seems he had a hidden agenda of talking to me about my religion. Hoping that he would get the hint that I was in the middle of something on my computer, I continued with what I was doing and purposely showed little interest in the conversation he was trying to make. He did get the hint, but that didn’t mean I had escaped being the subject of yet another lengthy evangelization.

I put my laptop inside my backpack and headed to the bus stop where I would take the shuttle to Lower Campus. Much to my dismay, there, at the top of the steps, was Jonathan. Yes, I am finished with my “work,” I said, but now I must go and catch the bus. Why am I taking the bus? Because I don’t want to walk to Lower Campus alone. I prefer to take the bus, that’s why. (I didn’t come off as sounding this hostile in my verbal speech, of course.) I handled the situation in the best way I knew how.

Long story short, Jonathan followed me (actually he walked beside me and talked about religion) the whole way from outside the library, to the bus stop, on the bus, off the bus, and to the gate outside of my house. Now, you might be asking yourself why I allowed this guy to follow me the whole way home. Well, I knew that it would be safer for me to be at the bus stop where there would be more people around. Same thing with when he got on the bus – there were people around. And when he got off the bus and walked to the gate outside my house, I knew that our security guard would be there waiting.

All this time I listened to his claims about Christianity and responded with my own polite rebuttals. I didn’t, however, ask the question that I really wanted to ask—namely, Do you believe in Jesus Christ on your own volition, or because the people who colonized your ancestors forced it upon you? (Jonathan was originally from the Congo and has lived in Cape Town for nearly a decade, so the question would have been legitimate and supported by historical fact.)

At one point on the bus ride he handed me his cell phone and asked me to enter my number. Rather than explaining that I don’t give my phone number to random people that follow me to my house, I politely entered a made-up number.

Let me clarify here that I do not believe that all Christian pastors behave in this manner, nor do I believe that Christianity is inherently bad. However, I do believe that this is a terrible way to go about sharing God with someone. And I have very, very negative feelings toward evangelism, conversion, war and conversion in the name of any god.

*I am using a pseudonym for the mere fact that, as it was pointed out to me so well, “Jonathan” is very well-known on campus. Indeed, he told every person that he met and greeted on the way down to Lower Campus that he had not seen them in a while – where had they been? Since he knows so many people on campus, and since I am here until June, and since someone could potentially find this blog at random on the internet, I have decided to call the man Jonathan. That is all.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Day 66

Today marks my 66th day in Cape Town. As I reflect on the past 65 days, I realize how much I have had to adjust and adapt my own behaviors to the fit into the culture around me, oftentimes without even realizing it. Here the things that stand out the most:

1. I never deliberately make eye contact with strangers here. At home I have no problem doing this occasionally just to challenge the social norms and see how people react—it’s a fun little social experiment.

2. For the most part, I don’t talk to anyone that I don’t know. There are only a few exceptions: I say “thank you” to someone who holds a door open, to the cashier at the grocery store, and occasionally to the bus driver. Students are generally much friendlier and more open to conversation than the rest of the public sector. I have become more judicious in expressing my gratitude not because I am becoming rude, but because “please” and “thank you” simply aren’t used as frequently in Cape Town as they are in the United States.

3. Public transportation isn’t as bad as I expected. I can take a taxi into town for R5 (less than $1 US). Most recently the taxi driver was going 150 km/h. I don’t know exactly how fast that is in miles, but I think it best not to do the conversion. On that note, all of the taxi drivers were on strike yesterday and none of them were driving. So, while it is a very efficient and economical means of travel, this is only true if the taxis are operating. The taxi strikes also provoke violence; there’s been ongoing tension between the taxi drivers and the bus companies that are taking business away from the taxi drivers, especially now that it’s nearing World Cup time.

4. I actually like being on a big university campus. Granted, there are at most 16 people in any of my classes since the classes are geared toward service-learning, but it is a nice change from my small campus at home. The University of Cape Town is literally at the base of Table Mountain, so walking to Upper Campus from where I live, on Lower Campus, requires 30 minutes of climbing stairs and inclines the whole way. Fortunately the University has shuttles (called “Jammies”) that run from Lower to Upper Campus most of the day. I thought that waiting for the shuttle would be an inconvenience, but I am actually becoming quite fond of it, and I’ve done a lot of reading-for-pleasure while waiting for and riding on the shuttles. That is one nice thing about public transportation, though it’s certainly nice to know that I will have my car when I get home.

5. In many public places, you have to purchase toilet paper for R1. Then, the store clerk, bartender, or whomever, will tear off a certain number of squares for you to use. There’s no hiding the fact that you have to use the toilet when you have to purchase your toilet paper in front of everyone. (If you have Runny Tummy, you’re probably better off carrying your own roll with you!) Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to carry hand sanitizer with you everywhere. Not even the University restrooms are stocked with soap. Maybe the soap dispensers are just for decoration?

6. Just say no. When people ask you for money, you just have to say no. Avoiding eye contact makes this a little easier, but being American certainly makes you a prime target for those wanting money. So far I’ve only been suckered into buying somebody one Coke. Then he told me loved me. I assured him that he didn't. I learned my lesson fast!

7. I’m learning what it means to be American: Americans carry water bottles everywhere they go, especially Nalgenes. It must be an American thing (or maybe just an Ursinus thing) to read a book at the gym (e.g. on the treadmill) because everyone I’ve run into has been perplexed as to why I was taking a book to the gym, and how reading while exercising is physically impossible. We also wear those wispy binders (thin head bands) and Adidas shorts when we’re exercising or playing sports. If you are wearing a T-shirt, Adidas shorts, sneakers, a wispy binder, and carrying a Nalgene, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind – you’re American.

8. Apparently UCT students have a more balanced academic and social life than American students. During the week, the library closes at 10 PM which means that if you want to continue studying, they don’t support it. (If I’m correct, Ursinus’s Myrin Library is open till 1 AM during the week, and 4 AM during finals.) You’re free to keep studying, but you must do so somewhere else.

9. I’ve become much more aware of my surroundings and take much more care for my personal safety than I do at home, for several reasons. First, anyone traveling to another country would be more attentive to their surroundings when they are outside of the comfort of their home environment. Second, it is a well-known fact that Cape Town has a very high crime rate, and it would be foolish not to take precautions. For example, I never leave my room – not even to use the bathroom or shower – without locking my windows. With that said, being safe in Cape Town depends mostly on common sense (knock on wood). I try to fit in by following the social norms, acting as others act, going to public places in daylight, and carrying little money or valuables on my person. If I must go on campus somewhere past 6:00, the security guard knows where I’m going, and when to expect me back. So even though I’m much more aware of taking safety precautions, I do feel safe.

Monday, March 22, 2010

10,000 March for School Libraries in South Africa

Yesterday was the culmination of about a year of relentless organisation and mobilisation among Equal Education's staff and members, alongside numerous organisations with whom they joined forces. I have only had a brief peek at all the work that organising such a campaign entails, but to see everything come together at yesterday's march to Parliament was nothing less than impressive. Check out the press release here: http://www.equaleducation.org.za/press-a-views/press-releases/item/112-21march2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ubuntu (Togetherness)

This past weekend was our homestay weekend in Khayelitsha Township. On Friday evening we went to a community building in the township where we were greeted with a welcome suited for royalty. Black Xhosa women and children clapped and cheered for us as our transport pulled through the iron gate. The young girls’ dancing and singing stood in stark contrast to us Americans who were standing still and in awe of the welcome we were receiving. (And, over the course of the weekend, we would confirm the correct stereotype that white people can’t dance.)

Inside the community building we were introduced to all of the host mothers for the weekend. Each one told us her name, surname, and clan name. Then we introduced ourselves. After introductions we sampled three traditional Xhosa dishes: homemade bread, tripe, and mielie. I tried two of the three, but opted not to take the tripe (the lining of a cow’s stomach). Those who did try it said it was poorly cleaned and tasted like the grass the cow ate. Others described it as tasting like cow shit.

The real meal that followed was filling and delicious. Food is a huge part of Xhosa culture. At the end of the weekend, the host families would tell the homestay coordinator that we were a much more open group of students than they have had in the past—meaning, of course, that we ate a lot more than past students. They appreciated this; they become concerned when you do not accept what they are offering you because it makes them feel as if you are not comfortable, or that they are not providing adequately for you. So, even if you cannot fathom putting another piece of fruit or bread or sweet in your stomach, it is polite to do so anyway.

Two students stayed with each host family. It was nice to be paired with Christina, to whom I hadn’t really spoken much before this weekend. Our host mother for the weekend was Ngawethu, a 67-year old, gray-haired, spunky, Black, Xhosa woman who introduced herself to the entire group by telling a story, complete with acting and hip-swinging, about how she came to live in Khayelitsha.

Mama, as we would call Ngawethu the remainder of the weekend, has two daughters. But the two daughters were not the two girls we met at the community center; one of these girls was in fact a daughter (in the American sense of the word). However, most non-European countries do not use the same words (e.g. aunt, uncle, cousin, brother, sister) to describe kinship as we do. And many, like the families in Khayelitsha, live with their extended families. After asking several family members many questions, we came to find out that Mama and her husband, Isaiah, have one biological daughter. The other “daughter” actually lives in another house with her mother, and I’m still not sure if she is of any blood relation or not. The other biological daughter married someone from, and now lives in, the United States. The two daughters still living with Mama were 21 and 23 years old. Eddy, who also lived with Mama, was 16. I came to find out that he is actually the biological son of Mama’s sister, who died of TB within the last five years. Eddy also has a biological sister who has a young child, but I don’t think she lives with Mama as I only saw her once.

From my conversation with Eddy, I gathered that Mama is a very authoritative parent, and he respects her tremendously. The other night Eddy received a phone call from a female friend. Mama inquired if this was a girlfriend and, if not, why was she calling him? “No,” Eddy assured her, “she was just a friend.” Eddy told me that he was not interested in having a girlfriend right now, and he is not going to have sex until he is married. He does not want to have a girlfriend right now, he does not go out on the weekends; all he wants to focus on right now is his studies, passing his matric exams (Grade 12 graduation exams), and get into varsity (college/university). Still, he knows that Mama does not question him because she does not trust him, but because she cares for him. Her authoritativeness is a manifestation of her love.

In another story, after Eddy’s sister found out that she was pregnant, they found her at the garage drinking petrol (translation: she was at the gas station drinking gasoline to try to kill herself and her baby). Mama took her to the hospital, had her stomach pumped, and the baby supposedly went unharmed. Afterward Mama asked, “Did I ever tell you to have many boyfriends and get pregnant? No. You did this. I did not tell you to do this.” Her message was that she did something of her own volition, and now she had to take responsibility for her actions. Both of these stories (and I’m sure there were many more that we didn’t hear) suggested that Mama abided by the letter that hung on the back of the bathroom door:

Dear Child
As long as you live in this house, you will follow the rules, when you have your own house, you can make your own rules.
In this house we do not have democracy. I did not campaign to be your parent. You did not vote for me.
We are parent and child by the grace of God and I accept the privilege and awesome responsibility. In accepting it, I have an obligation to perform the role of a parent.
I am not your pal. Our ages are too different. We can share many things, but we are not pals. I am also your friend, but we are on entirely different levels.
You will do in this house as I say and while you may ask questions, you may not question my authority. Please remember that whatever I ask you to do, is motivated by love.
This will be hard for you to understand, until you have a child of your own.
Until then, trust me.
Your Parent

Originally written by Ricardo Montalban to his son.

And children do understand this thing when they become parents of their own children. Sometimes children even realize the benefit of having a seemingly strict parent while they are still children. Still others come to resent that their parents were not stricter; that is, that they did not show them more love. After all there comes a point when children are no longer children, when they must make decisions for themselves. There is a poem by Kahlil Gilbran that speaks to this very thing:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

And, conveniently, I was just made aware of an African (Xhosa) proverb that echoes this idea that change comes through children. The English translation goes something like this: Old people are like metal, they don’t bend. In other words, young people cannot try to change the views of the elder generations. At the same time, the older generation should not hold it against the younger generation that their views are different. It is the parents’ responsibility to rear their children well and prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead of them. Then, after they have raised them and instilled in them their values, they must release them from their influence and trust that they have well-prepared them for the challenges and blessings that life will hurl at them.

So yes, Eddy is so appreciative of the love that Mama gives him. And he is determined not to disappoint her, or himself.

Around 9:00 on the Friday evening we arrived at our families homes, the two girls told Christina and me that we were going out.

“Where are we going?”


So, we went to Keith’s Place, a bar in the township, just a short walk from their home. Locals didn’t start filtering in until about half past ten, so for a while it was just six of us Americans and our host families. When the locals did start coming in, they did a double-take as to why there were six white people in a bar in a homogenously black township. But the oddity of the situation quickly wore off. We engaged in conversations with the locals and soaked up the atmosphere.

On Saturday morning we went to Ubuntu (“togetherness” in Xhosa), an HIV/AIDS clinic for infected children. On this day the children were performing songs, dances, and skits. It was nice, but it was far too long for my restless self to sit there and simply observe.

In the afternoon we went to Ace’s Place, a meat market similar to Mzoli’s. It was here that an old man (he was probably in his late 50s) professed his love for me, and I proceeded to assure him that no, he did not love me. “You don’t even know me!” At which point I rejoined our group’s conversation and tried to avoid the old man who was confused about love. It turns out he wasn’t the only one who was confused about love. After I spoke with one of the other host mothers, I realized how true it still is that marriage is an institution and a vehicle for social mobility. (There is a difference between marriage for social reasons and marriage for love; here I am referring to the first one.) Anyway, this lady (a single, 37-year old, black, Xhosa, school teacher) wants to marry a white man. Why? Because, in her mind’s eye, white men are faithful, you always see old white couples walking together and still holding hands. They divorce less than black men. In other words, white men are just better. This truly shocked me. Obviously it is an opinion, and every person is entitled to his or her own opinion. But it seemed to me as if this lady feels scared into marriage. Her motive for marriage is not love, but the avoidance of a situation she does not want to be in. As I understood it, she was motivated to marry out of fear. Of course she wants to be happy (don’t we all?). Anyway, I don’t intend to draw any conclusions from this, it was just an observation. However, I did give the conversation my two cents: People are people, and white men divorce just as much as anyone else. So to simply marry any white man guarantees only one thing—that the chance of having a lifelong marriage is the same as the flip of a coin.

After we finished enjoying the braai at Ace’s Place, we went to the other Ace’s Place across town, which was complete with a bar and dance floor. I walked in and walked straight back out to my host brother, Eddy, and two of the other host sisters. The three of them were too young to go inside. We got in the back of a truck and rode home. I couldn’t handle another night out; all I really wanted to do was spend time with Mama and talk with her. When we got home, we went to a house church. The setting reminded me of the Spanish church I went to at home in the sense that there were just a bunch of people crowded in a room in a house fellowshipping and worshipping God. However, this experience was much crazier, in my opinion. Perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed quite as crazy if the speaker hadn’t been speaking English – at least then I wouldn’t have known what he was saying! This speaker believes that he is a prophet of God (the Christian God, father of Christ). He saw “seven angels among us,” and prophesied that, of the people in attendance, three of their mothers would die on Wednesday at noon… Yes, this creeped me out.

On Sunday morning we went to an Anglican church service, which was conducted in Xhosa. Mama didn’t come with us because she was too busy preparing breakfast for us, despite our urging her to sit down and eat with us. My only regret for the weekend is that we didn’t have more time to talk with the elders. Well, that we didn’t get to talk more with Mama (I only saw her husband once over the weekend). Still, the conversations we did have were meaningful.

In summary, this weekend was a great experience. There is a spirit of ubuntu (togetherness, collectivity) in Khayelitsha. Everyone we met – our host families, locals, complete strangers – went out of their way to welcome us, make sure we were safe, and to make us feel at home. I wasn’t planning to have anything to drink at the bar on Friday night, and I was fine with this. So I was surprised when my host sister brought me a bottle of Powerade. Why was this girl who was just two years older than me and living in these conditions buying me, a white, privileged American, a drink? Someone else from our group started turning down beers from locals only because he couldn’t drink them all.

This is the benefit of becoming engaged in a culture despite how negatively it is portrayed by the media. Khayelitsha has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous townships. We students were all very aware of all of the things associated with Khayelitsha before we arrived, and we took these into consideration. I, for instance, didn’t bring my camera because I didn’t want to risk it being stolen. (My camera would have been just fine.) The residents of Khayelitsha were so eager to welcome us and to show us that it really is a great community, that people really do appreciate outsiders taking the time to understand them. And over the course of the 48 hours that we were there, we tended forget that we were in this supposedly crime-infested black township where poverty is an adamant oppressor. Instead, this was a vibrant community of human beings who care for one another and look out for one another. Yes, this was ubuntu.

I realize that I have not gone into too much detail here about the living conditions of the homes where we were stayed this weekend. I think this is an important part of the weekend, and I will include more of these details in the next post. For now though, this one has become too long. So, until next time…

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Backflips in the vineyard, and other things to catch up on

I have been slacking on my blogging lately, so I’ll attempt to sum up the past week in a single post. There hasn’t been much change in terms of classes or service is concerned, but I’m not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. Before I get into the academic aspects, let’s talk about the weekend. On Saturday we went to a wine tasting at Nelson’s Creek vineyard, about 40 minutes from where we are staying. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t too enthused about the wine tasting, but I was excited to spend the day in a vineyard since I had never visited one before, and the only image of a vineyard I had in mind was from the movie The Parent Trap.

As soon as we stepped out of the van I was overwhelmed by the smell of fermented grape juice. (I think “fermented grape juice” sounds nicer than “alcohol.”) Our visit began with a brief tour of the vineyard in which we learned about the different types of grapes, soil, weather, and farming techniques. Then we saw the machinery used in the wine-making process that. The machinery sat outside on a neatly poured base of concrete, which my Grandpa Bowen would have been delighted to see. When our tour guide finished speaking, I asked what the trampoline was for. He replied that it was for the children who accompany their parents but cannot partake in the wine tasting. “Is there an age limit?” I asked. “No,” he said, “you can jump on it if you’d like.” Doing front-flips and back-flips on a trampoline in a vineyard would turn out to be one of the highlights of my day, until one of the other workers informed us that the trampoline is only for children. I guess I cannot pass for a child anymore after all.

The informal wine tasting was mildly entertaining, and I found it slightly humorous that the others could taste strawberries or smoke or other strange flavors in the wines. They all taste like alcohol to me. I did, however, enjoy the dried apricots, almonds, crackers, and cheeses, and the others at my table were glad to have my share of the wine. Afterwards we sat under a shade tree and had bagged lunches (no baboon intruders this time, fortunately). I also made friends with a golden retriever that enjoyed placing his large paw in my palm, until he caught on that I was playing a game and seeing how many times he would shake with me until he quit.

The following day Lin-Lin and I attended the non-denominational Christian service held at the Baxter Theatre. It struck me as ironic that, to the best of my knowledge, the rest of the congregation was either Black or Coloured, yet the pastor was obviously White. In one regard it was nice to know that all of these groups could congregate to worship one god, but at the same time the racial composition of the group, and the fact that a White pastor was ministering to a Black/Coloured congregation was reminiscent of the all-too recent colonialism this country has undergone. In my opinion, both South Africa and America are racial and cultural melting pots, but with different flavours of stew. The South African stew has a smooth base, a medley of many ingredients, but it also has some distinct vegetables that have barely been diced and tend to remain separate from the rest of the ingredients. The American stew is blander and less flavourful than that of South Africa, but it is palatable.

Back from my tangent to the originally intended narrative. My service at Equal Education has been both rewarding and frustrating. The entire organization is deeply involved in preparing for the March 21st protest for a national policy on school libraries, so it is difficult to work on any other projects right now. The library campaign will be complete in two weeks time, so for now I am trying to offer my help with the campaign and am waiting patiently to really dive into this academic program I am attempting to implement with the help of Joey, the head of the Youth Department. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that it is nearly impossible to pin down this man because he is so incredibly busy. I think the trick is that I must just schedule weekly meetings with him, and even then it is virtually impossible to have an uninterrupted meeting. But, this is the nature of NGO work. I know for a fact that I could not handle so much stress and disorganization, but I admire people that can because their work is extremely important.

The most rewarding part of my time at Equal Ed. is interacting with the students. They are all incredible people with incredible stories to tell. Two of the gentlemen and I are working informally to improve some poems they have written. Their poems are very real and reflect some of the daily struggles they face. I am learning a lot from conversations over poetry, so it is more of a co-learning experience than anything. The ladies have been begging me to bring my guitar, so I took it with me last Friday and it was a big hit. The guitar is a very social instrument, I have found out. No matter where you take a guitar, you will make friends because of it. Anyway, the girls took turns playing and learning chords and just having fun. Before I knew it we had a crowd of no less than ten people gathered around this instrument and making music. Upon their request I agreed to play something for them – I had no idea Taylor Swift was such a hit in South Africa – and one of the girls took off her hat and set it in front of me to collect tips. They have so much spunk and personality, each one of them. It was a good day. Two of the girls either have or are now getting guitars for themselves, so I sense that there will be more guitar lessons in the near future.

Unfortunately one of my guitar strings snapped on Friday night, so I haven’t been able to play (although this does provide me with a legitimate reason for why I do not take my guitar to Equal Ed. every day!). Still, I need to find a music shop and get me some strings. There’s no sense in having a stringless guitar sitting in my room.

As far as classes go, I continue to be mostly disappointed with two of them. But there is one that I am enjoying very much, Poverty and Development. I think we could add “and Globalization” to the end of the course title as well. The professor is very knowledgeable, has lots of firsthand experience, and is passionate about what she is teaching. She also has an incredible life story (every person does) and I look forward to having more conversations with her in the future. We are thinking to go for coffee or lunch sometime over the following weekend.

This coming weekend is our home-stay weekend. Each of us 16 students will be staying with a family in the Khayelitsha Township, which I am very much looking forward to, particularly since Equal Ed. is located in, and most of the students live in, Khayelitsha. We will be departing from our residences at 17:30 on Friday and will return at 14:00 on Sunday. Khayelitsha is a Black township and the language spoken there is Xhosa. I am used to hearing this click-language spoken, and I can say a few words and phrases, but I am pretty useless when it comes to holding a conversation. On Saturday will be walking around the township and attending a festival at Ubuntu, the children’s HIV/AIDS clinic in Khayelitsha where some of my peers are doing their service. Most families go to church on Sunday mornings and have a large family dinner afterwards, so that is as much as I know about what this weekend will entail.

Wikipedia has an incomplete but basic description of Khayelitsha here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khayelitsha

You can also type “Khayelitsha Township” into Google images for some pictures.

Besides all of this, I do not seem to have any increase of fondness toward learning in the classroom. In other words, I have a research proposal due by tomorrow at midnight that is not yet complete. I must change this bad habit before I return to my home college next fall. Anyway, I plan to spend the remainder of this rainy day in the library. Speaking of rain, this is only the second or third time it has rained during the day since I have been here. It is a welcomed cooling agent after yesterday hit close to 90˚F. Still, this sunshine has been lovely.

That wraps up just about everything over the past week. I’ll make a more conscious effort to post more frequently; a lot of the feelings are lost when reflections aren’t done in a timely manner. I hope you all continue to be well, thanks for reading, and take care. Now I must make my way to the library!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Every single person on this planet has a unique life story, and all of our lives are somehow interconnected. When we look at people, we view them in a certain light. We compare their behaviors, attitudes, and opinions with our own, and we usually consider whatever we do or believe as being correct and anything that diverges from that as wrong. The problem with this is that none of us can know what is right or what is wrong. Our notions of right and wrong come from many places, most often stemming from religion or some other sort of spiritual practice. But in the end, our ideas of what is right and what is wrong are merely that – ideas.

As human beings, we are in no position to judge other human beings as being better or worse than ourselves. Nor should we expect that other human beings follow the same moral code that we do. Each person has a reason for following the moral code that he or she chooses; the only wrong moral code is one that is not supported by reason. I know what you are thinking: There are some moral codes that are inexcusable and undoubtedly wrong (those of the serial killers, rapists, pedophiles, etc.), and I agree with this. In fact, there are some things which are considered wrong or taboo in every culture for the reason that said behaviors are harmful to the existence of society and the sustainability of its members.

I do not mean for this to turn into a debate over the origin of right and wrong, nor how to determine what is moral and immoral. The point I am trying to make is that, as humans, we generally draw conclusions about people far too quickly; consequently, we judge them based on our constructed conclusions rather than taking the time to talk to people and listen to their life story. If only we would take the time to stop and listen before we judge and draw conclusions, then we might create understanding rather than discord. When understanding is sought, even the most opposite personalities can have a healthy interaction based on an appreciation of differences rather than a hidden motive to judge and compare.

Although we have no right to judge someone or say that they are a lesser person than we are, we do have a right to make judgments about what is good or bad based on our own values and moral codes. So a person could do something that is good according to his moral code, but is wrong according to mine. This does not make either of us right or wrong, it only makes it different. And this is where understanding is essential. You know the cliché about agreeing to disagree? It is relevant here. It is not our duty to change people’s moral codes against their will. Certainly we can discuss moral issues with them, defend our own moral codes, and challenge them to think differently; but any change must come from within their own hearts. If they do not accept those things that we have proposed, then they do so for a reason.

The line between reason and excuse is not a fine one. A person’s experiences can influence their present behaviors and beliefs, but these reasons cannot excuse their present ill-behaviors. This brings us back to the issue of how to determine what is right and wrong. So for now, just consider your own definitions of right and wrong. It is never too late for a person to change their wrong behaviors. However, we must remember that if a person does not view their own behavior as wrong, they are unlikely to change.

Perhaps this is where religion and spirituality come into play, though I do not believe that the two are mutually exclusive. More than anything else, religion and spirituality are the most discussed topics among the students in the house where I am staying. After the most recent debate between the two, the conclusion was drawn that religion has a more selfless component whereas spirituality is more self-focused. (Obviously these are just generalizations that are not applicable to all situations, but they are a starting point for further discussion.) This brings us back to the issue of right and wrong; where does this notion originate from? Can a person who is purely spiritual find definitions of right and wrong within themselves? Or must these definitions come from some higher being, a god or some holy text?

I’m not sure where I intended for this post to go when I began writing, but that’s often the way life works. We have certain intentions or expectations, but life – or god, or the universe, or some higher being, or humanity itself – has other plans. And those plans are generally more beautiful than anything we could have created for ourselves.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Photo Link (Erin Callison)

A fellow student, Erin Callison, was kind enough to share this link of photos she's taken of our trip thus far. I haven't yet seen the photos, but thought I'd pass them on to you awhile. http://picasaweb.google.com/erincallison

Sunday, February 28, 2010

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem

In South Africa, you can go anywhere in bare feet. The earth connects with the pads of your feet, the texture of the stone pathways is like a natural massage, and the asphalt that basks in the South African sun warms your soles. Yesterday I decided to walk only in bare feet, and it was nice. You can’t do this back home. I walked on roads and sidewalks, rode on the shuttle bus, and walked through the library, barefoot. It’s a nice feeling, some kind of freedom about not wearing shoes. As a child I liked walking barefoot in the grass the most (though I didn’t like scrubbing off the grass stains in the bathtub afterward). There’s hardly any grass here, but the sensation is equally pleasant.

Perhaps this feeling of freedom is what those topless ladies on the beach were feeling. About a month ago several students and I went to the beach for the day. With no restrooms in sight, we were puzzled as to how we were going to change into our swimsuits. Perhaps we could go behind those huge rocks and change while the other girl students kept a look out for intruders. Or maybe we could hold towels up as a curtain while each of us took turns changing right there on the beach. And then, we saw a topless lady. And then, another. And still another. Then we laughed at how silly we must look to the others as we stand there on the beach trying to decide how best to maintain our modesty.

There were about 1,000 steps leading from the road down to the beach, and I don’t think 1,000 is an unreasonable exaggeration. We ended up changing on the steps, which were mostly hidden by trees and other foliage. We changed quickly and hoped that no strangers came while we were in the process. No one saw us, but they most definitely would have been more puzzled as to why three of us were changing on the steps than as to why there were topless ladies on the beach.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

R & R & Mailing Address

It is hard to believe that I am already in my sixth week in South Africa. Where is the time going? I've been fortunate enough to fit my 15 hours of service (though it will probably be a few more than that) into three of the weekdays, leaving my Tuesdays and Wednesdays open for classes, running errands, going to the gym, relaxing, etc. Although we are into our third week of classes, I still feel like I am on vacation. Perhaps it's the warm weather tricking my mind into thinking it's summer, or maybe it's the lax pace of life here. Whatever it is, I feel content. Now, just because I am content doesn't mean that I haven't experienced my share of frustration, no sirree! I still feel quite confused as to what is going on in my classes, none of the classes have a permanent classroom location yet, and I am still amazed that the course syllabi do not include assigned readings or due dates for papers. I have to admit, I like having a schedule and knowing exactly when things are due so I can plan accordingly. But the good thing about this is that I am learning to be more patient and to go with the flow of things; in Africa, one has no other choice!

One of my present endeavors is that I am trying to condition myself to like vegetables. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am not a vegetable person, never have been. However, after one too many PB & J's, bowls of pasta, and pounds of meat, I'm realizing that, again, I have no other choice. Plus, they're good for me. Today I ate my second normal-size carrot, and it went down as easy as a pretzel. So I guess you could say I am making progress. Perhaps tomorrow I will tackle the celery (smothered in peanut butter, of course!).

Thank you to those who have sent emails, it is great to hear from you. I have had several requests for a mailing address, so I will provide that below. I'm not sure how long it will take to mail something to S. Africa from the States, but there's only one way to find out :) Here's the address:

Ashley Green
c/o Quinton Redcliffe, CIEE
IAPO Office
Lovers Walk, Lower Campus
University of Cape Town
Private Bag
Rondebosch, 7701
South Africa


Monday, February 22, 2010

Language and Post-Apartheid Legacies

A friend from home just shared this NY Times article with me: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/world/africa/22bus.html?hp It is about the current "war" between taxi drivers and the bus industry. Taxi drivers in South Africa are predominantly black, and they became entrepreneurs in the industry post-apartheid. They're quite successful at it too. Now that the World Cup is coming to South Africa, the country is trying to improve the transportation system by introducing more buses as a means of transportation, thus competing with the taxi drivers. This competition is so fierce it has even broken out into violence and even death.

The current transportation competition is only one of the legacies of apartheid. Another is language. South Africa has 11 official languages, but English remains the main medium of communication in politics, business, education, and media. I don't have the statistics, but I think it is safe to say that most, if not all, South Africans are bilingual, speaking English and their mother tongue. (Nopi, our security guard, is fluent in nine of the 11 official languages.)

I assumed that having 11 official languages might pose problems when it comes to publishing newspapers, for example. But I never really considered how many levels of society it actually affected. Earlier this evening I attended my first Grade 9 Youth Group meeting at Equal Education. We played some fun games, discussed the goals of Equal Education, and talked about why the learners in the youth group decided to join Equal Educations causes. Since English is the language that will allow these learners to become successful, I was surprised that - when speaking in English without being prompted to - the youth group leaders asked them to speak in Xhosa (pronounced "cosa"), their mother tongue. Furthermore, everyone present could speak and understand English, but not everyone could converse in Xhosa.

Language is a powerful thing, and I understand some of the implications surrounding the debate over whether or not languages should be left to die out or not, though I admit the effects of such thing run much deeper than I am aware. For one thing, there are certain feelings, ideas, and concepts that cannot be adequately expressed in all languages. Secondly, language is a part of one's cultural identity. To allow a language to die out would be to cut one off from one's ancestors, and even one's immediate family. On the other hand, language is also a symbol of power and domination. The use of English, then, is a constant reminder of the colonizing of the African people. Although I don't think most South Africans are aware of this thing daily (particularly the youth), it is still a fact that resides in one's subconscious mind much the same as most white people in America do not wake up every day conscious of their skin color because they are part of the majority.

In short, the point is that apartheid's legacy is present at so many levels. You know, this shouldn't be surprising considering how recently apartheid was instituted. The thing that I still struggle to understand is how human beings can judge other human beings and decide that one is less human than he. Who are we to judge anyone? This is enough for tonight.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Penguins and Baboons, oh my!

Prior to leaving for Cape Town, Grandma and Grandpa Bowen mailed me a newspaper article about the overwhelming presence of baboons in Cape Town and the concern this presents for the upcoming FIFA World Cup. Apparently the baboons like to get into cars whose windows are left rolled down, especially if there is food inside. I have been in Cape Town for five weeks now, and up until today I hadn’t seen a single baboon. But today after our hike out to the Cape of Good Hope, we had a couple of visitors at our picnic lunch. As we were sitting outside under the shade tree eating our paper bag lunches, I spotted a mother baboon with her baby on her back about 100 yards away from where I was sitting. Then, within five seconds, the same baboon swooped down from behind us and took Tina’s bagged lunch right out of her hands. I don’t think I’ve ever seen 15 Americans scream and spring from their seats so quickly. I don’t know what made us think the baboon was satisfied with just one bagged lunch; just as soon as we returned to our seats and got comfortable again, she made a second appearance, at which point we decided (and were told by the security guard) to move our picnic inside of our vehicle.

That was one of the highlights of the day. Prior to the baboon incident we visited Boulders Beach, known for its penguins. African penguins seem to be much lazier than those in Antarctica, or maybe they are just more relaxed. I’ve always liked penguins, mainly because they’re just so darn cute. But more than that, penguins take care of one another. They are a most faithful species (they mate for life). Perhaps they also a sense of decency; today it seemed as though two penguins who were becoming intimate with one another quickly ceased all intimacy as soon as they realized they were drawing a crowd. Maybe we were the ones without decency, refusing to give them their privacy.

The final highlight of the day was hiking out to a mass of rock, surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. I could see nothing around me except for a horizon line of ocean. There is something about the natural world that never fails to remind me how small I am. I stood near the edge of the rock watching the waves roll in. If the wave was just right, it would crash into the side of the rock on which I was standing, forcing the wave’s water upwards and arching over my head – thousands of tiny saltwater droplets raining down on me from below. The greatness of nature such as this cannot be adequately captured by even the most gifted writers.

This evening we also went to a rugby game between a South African and an Australian team at the stadium in Newlands. Without a doubt it was nice to experience the atmosphere of a rugby game in South Africa, but I don’t particularly enjoy sitting and spectating for so long. Or perhaps it’s just that I miss playing sports myself.
Until next time…

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Equal Education

It is finally safe to say that my work at Equal Education has officially begun. After what has seemed like weeks of waiting, I’ve finally got my feet in the door and have some vision of how I can be of assistance at Equal Education. At first I was under the impression that I would actually be working with the gap year students to help them improve their scores on their Matric exams (the ones they take upon matriculating from high school), but this might not be the case. Although I still might be able to help them improve their English scores, we first have to establish an academic program. Joey Hasson, EE’s Youth Department director, told me that they tried to get this academic program off the ground in November without success. Although there are many teachers interested in coming to teach the gap year students, none of the EE staff members have enough time in the day to organizing this program. Joey has already collected a thick database of teachers’ contact information, which should make my job somewhat easier.

Today I did a whole lot of nothing, and I’m sure that this will be one day of many. Despite my eagerness to help, I couldn’t find any of the staff members to give me work to do because they were all in meetings. It was suggested to me that from now on, perhaps I could ask for a week’s worth of tasks at the beginning of each week so that I can be sure I have something to work on. Equal Education definitely needs the extra hands, and I am sure that after this week I will also have a better feel for where my hands are most needed. For now though I am trying to create each gap year student’s schedule so we can figure out what times during the day they have available to take classes, as well as which subjects they would like to re-test in. After we get this figured out, I can start going through the database of teachers and making phone calls to those who are qualified to teach the subjects that our students need. There is no saying how long this process could take, and it’s possible that I might not even get to see the implementation of the program in the short time I am here. This is where it is helpful to have the perspective that we as individuals are just one piece in a larger puzzle. In fact, one of the challenges facing EE is that so many of the volunteers, like me, are only here for a short period of time. So by the time they get settled in and comfortable with how the organization operates, they have to up and leave. In some ways this is just the nature of the organization, but they could certainly benefit from more consistency. Still, EE is doing great things.

That’s the update on the service project. Other than that, I am doing pretty well, though this week has been a bit exhausting. The food hasn’t been settling quite right in my stomach, which only encourages me to continue my all too starchy diet – a rotation of rice, pasta, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (These aren’t the only items on the menu, but they have certainly been taking precedent.) Everything seems to spoil here so quickly – milk, bread, yogurt, you name it. Perhaps this is just one more thing I have been taking for granted.