January 13, 2011

How I got where I am – Part 2: South Africa

As I have said before, I studied in South Africa. Why? Because I had a South African roommate in Canada who studied Political Science like I did. She was cool and I thought South Africa would be a cool place to visit, so I wanted to figure out how to go to South Africa. It turned out I could get a scholarship. I applied for ISEP and I got it.

In January 2007, I believe it was the 19th, I flew Prague - London - Cape Town. I'm not going to bore you with all the visa troubles and stuff like that. I'm just going to tell you that driving from the Cape Town Airport to Stellenbosch was just shocking. The people from the University were asking us all the polite questions but I was speechless - the highway passes Khayelitsha, one of the many townships of South Africa, and I realized that I was just a European girl (I tend to say "spoiled" but I don't think I really was - unless being used to what people have here inherently means you're spoiled) who had no idea what tough life was about. It's one thing to read about it and quite a different thing to be right next to it. I couldn't believe it was possible that people lived there! Yes, that's how much I didn't know.

Khayelitsha as seen from the highway
And after watching the shacks that are homes to so many people, I got to Stellenbosch where I was going to live for 6 months. Stellenbosch is pretty. Stellenbosch is also segregated, although it's not official anymore. The university residence where I stayed was the most luxurious home I had throughout my student years. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls but we each had our own bathroom and we had a lady coming to clean our apartment twice a week. We were behind a fence, with security guards checking everyone's IDs when getting in. Behind security doors. It was still nothing compared to the house where my friend lived - huge and beautiful and with a swimming pool... and behind a wall. I knew that I was immediately labeled the privileged one (and well, I was, in a way), although I was myself shocked by the luxury in which a minority of South Africans live, and although I would never be able to afford to pay for the room I had if it wasn't for my scholarship. No matter what, it didn't feel right.

And then I joined a group of international students, through the International Student Organization Stellenbosch, participating in the iKaya Primary After-school Care Program. We'd spend every Wednesday afternoon with the kids from iKaya Primary School in Kaymandi (another South African township whose name means, very ironically, sweet home in Xhosa) helping them with English. Fridays were for sports. We also organized a trip to the Parliament in Cape Town (while it's only 50 kilometers away and not even 10 Rands by train from Stellenbosch, some of the kids had never been there before), or to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, and spent an afternoon cleaning the area around the school (I spent at least 20 minutes chasing a 5-year-old boy who found a knife among all the underwear, bottles and stuff like this under one of the trees, trying to take it from him). The kids were from 8 to 15, but most of them knew about the hard things in life much more than any of us. Hearing about sanitation facilities, or rather the lack of thereof, was upsetting, hearing about how many girls get raped there was just more than I had ever really wanted to know.

Learning about plants in Jonkershoek
Someone wanna talk to you!
I also spent one afternoon a week in one of many Kayamandi crèches with a friend of mine, playing with kids and trying to - maybe hopelessly - give them the attention they should get as kids, but they were often not getting because they were born into such difficult situations.

While the activities at the primary school were organized through the university, and thus we had transport to get there, I had to walk to Kayamandi after my friend left - since I didn't have a car - to go to the crèche. It was maybe a 20, 30-minute walk from where I stayed, across the Kayamandi bridge, from the pretty world of little old European-like houses to a completely different world of almost no infrastructure, shacks and 20% HIV prevalence rate. I walked from my university residence where they were watering the grass even on rainy days to a place where people had no easy access to potable water. I liked the world across the bridge from where I stayed better, though. And for the lack of better explanations, I'll just throw a cliché here - I liked Kayamandi better because of the people. They were really friendly and after a couple of weeks of me walking through "their" streets, they'd say hi and how are you and I was happy to be able to join the people on the street on Fridays watching street performances (and South Africans are extremely talented so it was always worth it) and not feeling weird.

My Stellenbosch home 
A Kayamandi home

And that's why South Africa (and Kayamandi) will always be a special place for me. That's where I realized what it is that that I want to do. Playing with balloons with kids who'd never seen them, spending an hour drawing flowers with a girl who didn't want to try because she had never used crayons before and was scared that she couldn't do it... to finally watch her draw a flower next to mine. Things like that, only hopefully on a larger scale, but with similar impact on the individuals.


I saw more of Southern Africa thanks to this "study trip." I went to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe after school was over because I knew that I wouldn't make it back to that part of the world any time soon. All these countries were great and beautiful. But it was also a great learning experience. 

The more difficult it was for me to go back to school back home again to study theories of international relations and Cold War events... Because how was that going to get the people out of the Khayletisha shacks?

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