Saturday, January 30, 2010

I am American.

After visiting the Masiyile High School on Thursday, I’m fairly certain that this is where I want to do my service project. In the upcoming week we will have needs analysis meetings to determine where our help is most needed, and I should also know for sure by the end of this week where I will be placed. Actual service should begin by the following Monday, two weeks from now.

In other news, I’m becoming more and more aware of what it means to be an American. And for the first time in my life, I know how it feels to be referred to as “you people.” Last evening I was having a chat with one of our security persons. One topic of our discussion: Nelson Mandela. In America, we have this image of Mandela as a nation-changer, a transformer, a hero. He is all of these things, for sure. But why does Mandela need so many houses, one in several towns, while so many people are still suffering? Nopi’s point was clear. At the end of the day, even Mandela is only human.

We also talked about Oprah’s school for girls in Johannesburg. In Nopi’s opinion, the school was like a prison. The girls aren’t allowed to have cell phones or laptops or any connection with the outside world. This is the thing about education, especially in Africa. Education is both liberating and imprisoning. Most parents wish for their children to be more educated than they were. This wish is motivated by the idea that if they are more educated, they will have better lives. But education can also tear people away from their families. Like this school, for instance (and there are many others doing the same thing). I don’t think it’s all bad. I just think that, along with educating our children, we need to instill in them a sense of connection and respect for where they come from so that they may one day return to the towns and villages and schools they were raised in and return something to the communities that helped socialize them.

You know, I am beginning to increasingly admire people like Nopi, people with strong opinions. I am not talking about people who are simply stubborn. I am talking about people who have legitimate reasons for believing what they believe - people who are not easily swayed by things or ideas that contradict their personal values and beliefs. People who are willing to analyze opposing viewpoints and amend their own viewpoints if, after considering the opposing argument, they believe that certain opposing viewpoints could actually enhance their personal codes of conduct and help them live a happier, more purposeful, and more fulfilling life.

Nopi is proud to be South African. He says he wouldn’t leave his country for anything. He has South African pride. He would visit other countries, yes – first Manchester United’s stadium in England, then the U.S. and Spain and Italy, but he could never live there. And you know what is one of the biggest reasons why he couldn’t leave South Africa? What would he eat?! Where would he get his pap? “You people eat these… lettuce and call it a meal. That’s not a meal! I’m talking about soul food. I have to keep this big belly of mine or I would get thin as this (he holds up his pinky finger).”

After going to the grocery store today, I realized how much I have been viewing South Africa from a sociological perspective. Some people have been especially kind to us foreigners, others not so much. But it is nothing we should take personally. There is a whole legacy of apartheid which we have walked into here. My skin is the color of the class of oppressors. To many, that makes me one of them. It is not my fault that some might view me grudgingly or interact with me with bitterness. It is because they have suffered, or their families have suffered, and in fact they continue to suffer because of apartheid – this ideology that the color of skin determines the value of a person. But I did not choose to be born in the country I was born. I did not choose the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, or the family that I have. All of this was decided for me. And until we can recognize that we are not personally responsible for our history, until we can accept the fact that no one’s living conditions are because of them but because of society, we cannot begin to change the future.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Re-Visiting the Projects

This morning a few of us who are interested in teaching at the Primer (Elementary) School for our service projects re-visited the school. If you recall, I was quite ecstatic about teaching the younger grades after our initial visit. But after our second visit, I was more amazed than ecstatic – and by amazed I really mean perplexed. In the second grade classroom I observed, there was one teacher in charge of 42 students, and one student was absent. Typically the teacher has an assistant, she said, but on this day I become the assistant. I am asked to get the children in their seats, quiet, and on-task. The students are not entirely rambunctious, and they prove that they can and do pay attention: When the teacher asked the students to say hello to “Ashley,” I was expecting a “Hi, Ashley!” Instead I was greeted by 42 students of nearly every skin color you could imagine. In unison they said, “Hello, Ashley, and how are you today?”

I have been forewarned many times about being the teacher that is too idealistic and believes that she can make a difference in the life of every student that enters her classroom. But when I enter this particular classroom, I cannot help but think idealistically. And I begin to think about what these students need. I also acknowledge that what they need might not be exactly what I would like to offer them. Obviously I have a lot of observing to do before I can begin to decide how I can address a need in this school. My biggest fear with this program is that I do not want to be viewed as that white girl who thinks she knows better than the others, who are (to the best of my knowledge) non-white. I am certain that my attitude would not cause people to view me this way; if anything, it is the history of xenophobia and oppression in this country that might cause others to adopt this view.

So what can I do? I can be the best human being I can be. I can try my utmost to understand the circumstances and conditions this school is facing. I can look at these students and see what they truly need, and see how I can help them attain this for themselves. That is the thing – I don’t want to do anything for them, per se. I want only to help them recognize what they need and help them realize that they have the strength to go after it themselves. I don’t know what this need is yet, but I’m sure this will become clearer in subsequent visits.

There is also a feeling of… confinement that I sense in this school. It is the confinement of circumstance, and more specifically of socioeconomic status. The Iranian philosopher Ali Shariati describes this circumstance as one of the four prisons in which each of us exist – the prison of our society’s social and economic structure, over which we have virtually no control. And it is true. In reality, no matter how much these students achieve, the odds are stacked against them. They are attending a school that recently had one of the highest rates of gang violence (now they rank second). They don’t have the resources that other students are receiving. As I understand so far, the students are struggling in their academic performance, but it is by no fault of their own. It is because they were born into families who are less well-off than others. It is because they have been oppressed for no other reason than the shade of their skin. And even though this racism is lessening in South Africa, it is an ideology ingrained in people’s minds that skin color can tell you something about a person. Skin color can tell you nothing about a human being.

You know, I honestly don’t know if we as human beings will ever be able to get over all of our differences and focus instead on our similarities. Certainly I would like to think this is possible, but I know that it will not happen in my lifetime. Once again, it is these ideologies that persist through generations. Physical objects and heirlooms passed down from generation to generation can be lost or even broken. This is less true of ideas. Ideas are not easily broken. And the only way to break an existing ideology is to replace it with a new one.

Despite all of the societal factors that are against them, these kids have so much life and energy. When I knelt down to help one of the students, another one touched my dangling earring and asked what it was. Another student kept rubbing the skin of my arm, perhaps trying to find if a darker color existed underneath. And when the boy and the end of the table proclaimed his love for me, I informed him that he did not, and that he should in fact be copying the daily news at the front of the room into his journal.

Tomorrow I will be re-visiting the Masiyela High School, so we’ll see how that goes. More to come tomorrow (as long as there’s wireless!).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

For the Love of Whales

I knew that today was going to be a good day. When I woke up this morning, the cell phone I purchased here worked again (save for the two dots in the middle of the screen). Yesterday my aerosol sunscreen leaked all over it, and as of when I went to bed, it refused to turn on. But this morning it was working again. And the hat I left on the bus that took us to the soccer stadium was right where I left it, patiently waiting for me to retrieve it. It is the little things like these that we take for granted. But often I have found that when we stop worrying about trivial things such as these, they tend to work themselves out. I do not mean to suggest that we be careless, but when we unintentionally become careless – or when unfortunate things occur simply by chance – we should not waste our energy worrying. There are too many other important things, people, and causes to which we should direct our energy instead.

Today was an enlightening day. We took a boat to Robben Island, the island where Mandela was kept extensively as a political prisoner. On the boat ride out to Robben Island, we saw several seals and then, a killer whale – first its smooth black back and then its distinguishing tail. I was not looking for a whale. In fact, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind that we might see a whale, but then we did. After this sighting my mind tricked me into believing that several clashing waves were also the backs of whales sneaking out of the water only briefly. Each time, however, I quickly realized that this was my mind playing tricks on me, my eyes were deceiving me. And then, in a single moment, a thought crossed my mind. A thought about expectations…
There is a time and a place for expectations. But in terms of casual interaction with people, one should not have expectations. One should have values that one believes in, but never should one expect to find these values in everyone else whom he meets. You see, if a person expects everyone whom he or she meets to be honest, he or she will be able to find honesty in that person, guaranteed; even if this person whom he or she has met is not honest, the mere belief that this person is honest is enough for supposed honesty to appear. The catch is that this honesty is manifested only in the mind of the person looking for it; in reality a person who is not honest cannot harbor honesty. Do you understand the importance? When you have no expectations of others, you find out who they truly are. But when you have expectations, then your mind is clear of expectations and you are able to view the person or situation or event as it is. Indeed, it is in moments when we are expecting nothing that we find the greatest things. However, when we expect to see something, our mind can be deceived into seeing things about people that are really not there.

This sort of thing especially surfaces in romantic relationships. Don’t you think so? When one is actively looking for a romantic partner, one expects to find certain qualities in the other person. As a result, one tends to find certain personal characteristics even when they do not exist, again because it is merely a manifestation of one’s own mind. Believing that the other person has those qualities for which one is searching, the relationship progresses and emotional attachment becomes greater. As time goes on and the honeymoon phase passes, however, one’s mind turns back to reality. When this reality sets in, one now recognizes that those qualities one saw in the other never truly existed but were only manifestations of one’s own mind. Then the relationship goes awry. All we all want is to be loved. But today, the whales taught me a lesson. Don’t go out looking for love, let it find you. Let your meeting of your significant other be by chance, by nature, by the work of God – whatever you want to call it. If you are looking for whales, you will see them, even when they are not there. So let love find you when you are least expecting it. You will know it is love when you feel compelled to deny that it is love.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

This morning we had our first talk on cultural diversity, which turned out to be more about poverty and the history of apartheid in South Africa. The information was good, but I worry that I might become easily bored by hearing the repetition of information I have already studied. Still, it is early in the semester. And, if nothing else, I will hear the information this time from a distinctly South African point of view.

After our talk we took a tour of Bo-Kaap, an area of Cape Town that consists primarily of Indian families whose ancestors were forced to settle in the area during apartheid. This section of town is vibrant, friendly, and complete with 11 mosques. At the end of the tour we were invited to dinner at the house of a very kind woman and her husband, whose names I cannot remember. For dinner we had “Cape Cuisine,” a fine blend of traditional (spicy!) Indian chicken curry over rice, potato pudding, and several other dishes of which I cannot remember the names – all with a hint of sweetness from Cape fruits. Delicious.

In the afternoon we attended a football (soccer) game in the stadium where the World Cup final will be played. The game was quite boring (it was between two minor league teams), but it was nice to be able to visit the stadium that is about to host the World Cup.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Visit to the Projects

Up until today, I have felt nothing but overwhelmed. Today, however, we visited the four project sites where we will potentially be working. Two of those sites were schools, one primary and the other high school. Despite my being on the track to teach at the high school level, I felt more at home in the elementary school, which is where I would like to offer my help. If I am placed here, I will be assisting a teacher part-time, and will also have my own class of about fourteen students, teaching a subject of my choice. The township surrounding the school formerly had the highest crime rate (in Cape Town, perhaps?), but has since fallen to the second highest spot. The school itself, however, is very safe. This is the one thing I love about schools – they are structured and predictable, a place where students can always feel safe. I will write more about the school provided I am placed there for my service project. For now, I am going to freshen up; this evening we are going to a fancy African restaurant and dancing the night away!On a side note, this journey has already been quite the experience. I am learning a lot, to say the least. Adjusting is going to take time, and this is one of the reasons I chose to come here. I wanted to test my limits, my spirit, my ability to adapt to change. This mission will certainly be accomplished. (I have no other choice!) In the meantime, you should be comforted to know that the house where we are staying is quite safe and in a decent area on campus. There is a locked gate around the property, a locked gate to the front door of the house, and bars on the windows. There is also an alarm system (which should soon be enabled), and security officers patrol the property. Many of our orientation lectures have been dedicated to discussions of safety. It is causing me to become more fearful than before I left the States – no, fearful is not the right word. Rather, it is hardening my soft soul, and forcing me to recognize the reality of the situations I will encounter, and some that I already have. Nevertheless, all is well here, and after visiting the school today, I feel great.
Well, I have finally arrived in South Africa (on Tuesday, actually). I managed to get some intermittent sleep on the 11-hour flight from London (thank goodness) and arrived in Cape Town at 10:00 AM (GMT). My first glimpse of Africa was the small area of landscape that showed through a single plane window (minus the area which was kept from my view by the wing of the plane). There, outside the window, were the foothills of Table Mountain, dotted with its typically African shrubbery. I suspect it will be an excellent hiking destination, and I believe we’ll conquer this task sooner than later. We have to wait for the perfect conditions to make the two hour trek up the mountain. The wind has been horrendous. The weather has been gorgeous – hot and breezy during the day and cool during the nights. The locals say it is quite cold for this time of year.

[Here I pause to offer some pieces of advice to other infrequent travelers like myself, should you dare to venture on your own: 1) Always, always, always call the airport on the day of your flight to make sure that your flight is on time, regardless of how nice the weather is. 2) When planning flight routes, allow for at least two hours between connecting flights. 3) Do not volunteer to take a window seat on flights lasting longer than six hours.]

Upon arriving at the airport I was greeted by an enthusiastic group of individuals working with the CIEE program, as well as some of the other students who I will be studying with for the next nearly five months. It was comforting to know that everything was well-planned upon our arrival. Also that morning we had our first taste of the reliability of the transportation here in South Africa. The minibus that was supposed to transport us from the airport to the hotel had broken down. So we went back inside and got our hands on some plastic instruments, called voovoozelas (sp?). Interesting story behind these instruments (you can Google it). On Saturday we will take them with us to the opening game at the World Cup stadium in Cape Town.
After leaving the airport and checking into the hotel on Tuesday, we went to "the mall" on the water front. Here we exchanged our money for the local currency, the rand (ZAR). [Note: It is better to exchange US dollars (USD) than traveler’s cheques; you are charged a fee to cash the cheques.] Then we had a bite to eat, and I regret to admit that my first meal in South Africa was none other than Subway. I felt this decision was legitimized by the fact that my system was still recovering from past day-and-a-half of traveling and airplane meals. Once my body better adjusts, perhaps I will give the ostrich meat a try, but right now is just too soon. For dinner we went to the Fish Market restaurant where I enjoyed fried calamari and the best lightest, richest hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.

I have purchased a cell phone here. I have no idea how much it costs in USD, but I am told it is the best plan I will be able to get, so I trust this advice. I am tempted to keep a calculator on my person at all times for when I need to know conversions, but I know this is ridiculous and that I should instead work on my estimation skills. I must also familiarize myself with the Centigrade scale, because that conversion (˚C + 17.98 x 1.8) is just too complicated for my brain to handle.

Monday, January 18, 2010

And so the journey begins!

Flexibility. This is one of the keys to a rewarding experience abroad, according to Dr. Hardin. We had a taste of this last evening when, upon arriving at Harrisburg International Airport, we were informed that my flight was delayed due to rain and clouds. Our only option: drive 3 hours (in the direction we had just come from) in order to make the connecting flight in Newark.

There was no problem, other than the minor inconvenience. I got checked in and through security in plenty of time and arrived safely at London's Heathrow a skip and a jump later. I have a feeling I am going to understand what jet lag is by this time tomorrow; it is hard for the body to adjust when its natural sleep cycle is broken. In fact, it is difficult for anything to function when its natural cycle is interfered with.

Nevermind. I am quite ready to go to South Africa, though I am not going with outrageous expectations. In many ways this is a soul-searching journey for me as much as it is a learning experience. Although I have never been abroad, I have a feeling that removing a person from her comfort zone forces her to look deep within herself and find what lies at the core of her being. I imagine it might be somewhat like (but also very unlike) the experiences Elizabeth Gilbert shares in "Eat, Pray, Love." I've decided to re-read this book for a boost of inspiration, and I imagine I can have it finished after the, oh, ELEVEN-hour flight to Cape Town.

At Heathrow I took a shuttle bus to the terminal from which my next flight will depart. I cringed inside and squinted my eyes when I saw that the bus in which I was riding was over the center-line and in the lane of the oncoming traffic. I quickly relaxed, and blushed to myself, after realizing that the traffic coming towards us was also completely on "our" side of the road.

And that was the first time it hit me: Ashley, you are not in America anymore. Now you are going to learn what it means to be American.

This is going to be a good four-and-a-half months!