A long journey home

It has now been 2 full days since I’ve been home, and just as quickly as I am settling back into my routines, the memories of my time in South Africa are slowly slipping away. Every day someone asks me how my trip was an I try to recount two weeks of memories and experiences in one breath. Everyone talks about how amazing it is to go, but no one ever talks about how hard it is to come back, knowing that you as a person have changed but are unable to show it. I’ve been trying to process and understand everything I learned, and figure out how to share it in a way that is educational and gives people around me a peek into how my mind has opened.

I am so thankful for my time in South Africa, for the people I met and the experiences we’ve had. I don’t think it has all truly hit me yet, and I don’t know that it ever will. I just hope that I can at least share a fraction of what I’ve learned with those around me, and make the world I live in a better place for those I’ve met.

P.S. I am absolutely crying while I write this, which is why it is so short, I cannot see through the tears.

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History is written by the victors… or is it.

This time in Johannesburg has been nothing short of amazing. I find myself not only continuing to love the culture the way I did in Cape Town but also find that I am being challenged as both an academic thinker and on a personal level. It has been very difficult to process some of the things we’ve learned, as some of these things show the very worst of humanity. Over the past three days, we’ve visited Lilieslief, taken a tour of Brixton, toured the beautiful graffiti art of the streets of Joburg, visited the Voortrekkers monument, freedom park, and the union building. However, the thing that has stood out the most to me is this conversation of power.

Our tour of Brixton was given by Sifiso Ntuli, or the Roving Bantu as he calls himself. His points and opinions were very interesting to me, and by the end of his tour, I found myself in such a state of shock that it has taken me until now to be able to fully process everything. His story was intriguing, and it was through his life experiences that I was able to really get a sense of life in post-apartheid South Africa.

One of the most interesting points he made was this idea of power and the creation of white and black. We as a society have made these constructions, and have allowed ourselves to be dictated by them. Furthermore, the feelings that fueled apartheid didn’t end just because apartheid did. But then one must wonder, where do these feelings come from? No one is born racist. We are born as clean slates, and over time the way society has created the construction of white, black, Indian, etc enters our life. It is how these constructs enter our lives the decide who we are initially, and the way we open our minds later in life that dictates who we become. There was so much more from this tour that I would love to discuss, however I am still processing the way I would like to share those stories as I have been emotionally moved and changed by them.

There is one thing that stood out to me and connected to both my experience at the Voortrekkers monument and freedom park. While showing us around, Sifso showed us what was left of what had once been a white nationalist monument. It had been torn down and defaced. It reminded me of other times the discussion of old monuments or names came up and it seems that South Africa faces a very similar issue to the United States- do we leave up the monuments commemorating the past, specifically those that idolize those who committed horrific acts in the past, or do we tear them down, and rename those places. In the US, there is a very large argument that by tearing down those monuments we are attempting to erase history, and this idea that history is always written by the victors comes up often. I’ve even heard people say that had the Civil War gone differently, it would be the northern monuments on the chopping block.

Something that has given me a unique perspective on this issue is the way history is discussed in South Africa. South Africans are usually very open about their history, and as much of it is so recent, many speak from personal experience. Everything here is educational, and to speak out against the past. Today while touring Freedom Park, our guide mentioned that many statues commemorating old times have been gathered and put in museums to be discussed in the correct way, and this is something I understand. Those places that are named after old generals or figures are being changed, and if you think about it it makes sense, they serve no educational purpose. It is not about erasing history, but rather learning from it in order to make sure we don’t repeat past mistakes.

When you leave up a monument in the context that it was erected, you allow it to continue to have power. While you might argue “it is our history,” you are allowing those who idolize it, who use it to justify ongoing racism, who draw from it to continue on. We say the past is over, yet the KKK continues to grow in numbers. We say there is no point in changing the name of a school because it is a hassle, but you then allow a distorted version of history to be told, one that reminds students who walk into that school every day who truly won the war. The North may have officially won the Civil War, but racism did not end. Policies that imprisoned people of color in the United States did not end. We do not use our monuments and our names to educate. Those who worry we are trying to erase history need not worry, for American history is not written by the victors, but rather the racism and intolerance that lived long past the Civil War, long past the Civil Rights Movement, and infects our society today.

The Voortrekkers monument is a great example of a place that really continues a certain narrative here in South Africa. For those who do not know, the Voortrekkers were the Boers (Dutch) who traveled across South Africa in the late 1800s/ early 1900s in covered wagons (similar to our pioneers). The entire tour told their history but also continued to talk about the brutality they faced at the hands of the Zulu tribes, and how they just wanted a place to settle. Yet, it left out one important point. The Zulu tribes owed these people nothing. They did not owe them treaties or land. And realistically, they reacted the way any people would when a foreigner invades their land and claims it for their own, they fought back. Yet, that was not the narrative shown, it was simply a monument to the greatness of the Voortrekkers and the savagery of the Zulu. It left out so much, and the Voortrekkers are not the eventual victors of this story, yet their story is told.

Our guide at Freedom Hill today said that these heritage spaces, spaces where we discuss our history and commemorate, must be contested spaces. They must be spaces that we are willing to discuss, argue, to work to understand. Our spaces in the United States aren’t contested. We have the inability to be able to have discussion, but rather stick to history the way we see it, the way we were taught. We do not have the problem of victors the way those who justify these monuments believe we do. American history is taught in a way that is subjective, in a way that shows we have not reconciled with our past, and allow it to take hold. You want your monuments, fine, but justify to me how they’re educational, how you’ve used them in a way that takes away their power.

In my opinon, you don’t erase history by changing them, you shape it. You document it and in doing so change the conversation for generations to come. When you can justify that we will talk, but until then we must really think about how we’re sharing history, and if we are allowing our past the power to continue having the same impact it was erected to have.

A time for remembrance

Leaving Soweto was a difficult thing to do, especially considering that it was the place for me that everything finally clicked. It was made a little bit easier knowing that I was taking a little piece of it with me, in my heart and in my soul. I promised Mama Lilian I would share her story, and I plan on doing just that. It was also made a little easier knowing that we had so much to look forward to. Today, we were to visit the apartheid museum and consitiution hill.

The apartheid museum is one of the most well constructed, extensive, meaningful museums I’ve ever visited. From the outside, all of the minor details may not seem to have much significance, but this museum was really put together with symbolism in every element. When you walk in you’re randomly given a ticket that states whether you are white or non-white. The whites walk through a shorter area and walk up a ramp to the next section, whereas the non-whites have to walk through a longer space and have to walk up stairs. This signifies how the non-whites had to overcome more obstacles to achieve the same things as whites. The rest of the museum had so much information that I am still continuing to process it all. One part that I found the most intruiging and I spent the most time on was watching the videotapes of the Truth & Reconciliation Committee hearings. Seeing this type of open discussion and accountability is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen and is probably the first time I’ve seen something like that. It has actually inspired me to change my area of research to look into attempts at reconciliation that were made immediatley following apartheid, versus the attempts made now and their effectiveness.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

After a long, amazing week in Cape Town, it was time for us to pack up and move on to Johannesburg. After arriving, our first stop was to head to the township of Soweto where we had a traditional African lunch and conversation with the people of the neighborhood. We then visited the Hector Peterson Museum, the Mandela house and then returned to our homestay for dinner, conversation and to go to bed.

It was not until we arrived in the township of Soweto that I really had a full grasp on the experience of black South Africans during apartheid. The discussions we had were eye-opening but very heavy on the heart. As a group, we discussed all things politics and society. One thing I found very interesting and wanted to research further into was this idea of land reform. The South Africans in the discussion stated that they didn’t want all the land back but that it should be shared back with those who had been removed during apartheid. They pondered the idea of sharing the land and teaching one another what to do. Their biggest worry was that if they were just given all of the lands back, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. It was interesting to me, to see a group of people who had been removed from their homes and their land, willing the share it for the good of the land and development of the country, rather than getting back what was taken from them. It made me consider how we have made reparations in the US, and the attitude that many here have towards land reform.

The greatest part of this experience was my mama, Lilian Keagile. She welcomed me into her home, treated me as if I was her own child. She even got to know us and gave us African names (mine was Masechaba, meaning of the country/ one who leads, as I talked about my love for traveling and leading). We discussed everything from America and our politics, to the history of her area and how she grew up there in Soweto. She continued to ask us if we were surprised that they lived in a home and had electricity and a Tv and a toilet, as the common perception is that most Americans believe Africans wear leopard skin clothing and live in mud huts. I had amazing discussions with her and her families and the fellow community members, but it was later in the night that she truly shared her story.

Around the time of the student uprisings in 1976, she and her twin brother were arrested for walking on the street. She was then detained in the women’s jail for 36 days, with no trial and no charges at the age of 16/17. I visited the jail the next day, and when I tell you that I would not have been able to survive there, especially at 16/17, I mean it. It was when she shared her conditions that I really began to understand apartheid and what it meant. In jail, they would be crammed into the cells, overflowing. The guards would come in and point at the young girls and say “I’ve chosen mine.” They would then call the girls over, and attempt to force them into sexual acts. If they did not comply, they were severely beaten. She told us how she had beaten over and over again, and how young boys would try to make them stop and say “do this to me instead.” It was then when she became emotional and had to excuse herself from continuing to tell her story. When we went to jail, we saw a plaque that explained further in her story, and how much she truly became involved with the anti-apartheid movement after her initial imprisonment. 

During the time she was imprisoned, her mother was never informed of where her children were or what was happening. This was common. She explained that to this day, there are still mothers trying to find their children after the uprisings, hoping they’ll come home one day. Every person we met knew someone killed or falsely imprisoned during that time, they were all proud to be from Soweto and to have been a part of something bigger. 

I promised I would share her story and this is my first attempt. We as Americans have no idea what truly happened here in South Africa, and my eyes have been opened even further to the world around me. South Africa is still fighting to become a better country, but one thing they are amazing at is fully being open about their past and what has happened. There is a level of social accountability that is hopefully helping lead to actual accountability. The US could learn a lot. We have not taken responsibility for the sins of our past, for the era of Jim Crowe and the continued prejudices we have against those of color here in the United States. We must own up to and have an open conversation and work towards reconciliation if we ever hope to be a fair and just nation, and I invite you all to truly reexamine the prejudices you may have in your heart, ones you may not even notice, and to fight inequality each day. 

Kea leboha, Mama Lilian, I hope that by sharing your story I have made you proud.

Two days, many stories.

While I’ve seen and done some amazing things this last week, the last two days have been some of my favorites in terms of the stories we’ve heard and shared. We packed so many amazing things into two days, and it has all felt like a dream. To sum up what we’ve done: visited the Solms Delta Winery and toured it, visited the town of Fish Hoek and learned a little about its history, went up Table Mountain, had a conversation with Christo Brand, visited the eastern food market, toured the district six museum, had a conversation with a local university student about the local movements that students are involved in, had some free time on Long Street, and had a nice group dinner to celebrate the end of our time in Cape Town. A lot right?

Some of the stories we’ve heard these past two days have weighed heavily on my heart. The South African people speak with a lot of candor and seem eager to share their stories. Many of these stories have a common theme; they reveal the great hardships faced during the time of apartheid and the way they have impacted their lives now. One thing that also really stands out to me is the common idea of forgiveness that is discussed. Every one of these stories has concluded in forgiveness. This forgiveness is by no means an excusal or a dismissal, but as our tour guide, Noor, for district six said, by being bitter you are only hurting yourself.

In the US, we really don’t learn much about apartheid, if at all, through the public school curriculum. I feel as though most Americans idea of apartheid is that it was white people making black people be separate. I do not think even on a basic level people understand how deep apartheid went, or how harsh its policies were. Even learning about from text does not capture the true monstrosities committed under this system. It gets me to wonder: do we not learn about this because learning and discussing apartheid may open the gateway to discussing our own history? Something I’ve said over and over again during this trip is that the type of candor and openness surrounding discussion of South Africa’s past and present would never occur in the US, despite us having similar racial pasts with slavery and then later on the era of Jim Crowe. Even now, we have a huge issue with prejudice and racial violence in our country, that even seems to be increasing, and yet we lack the basic ability to have productive conversations about it. We could learn a thing or two from the way South Africa discusses their history, and the efforts they have taken to reconcile. While it may still be a work in progress, they have, in my opinion based on what I have seen and heard, at least taken more strides than we have to own their past and correct it.

New year, new wallet.

One of the greatest things you learn on study abroad trips is flexibility. Murphy’s law, summed up, pretty much states that anything that can go wrong, will. Today, we were supposed to go to table mountain, but the insane winds of Cape Town decided otherwise. While this was unfortunate, it gave us the opportunity to take some time and go back down to the V &A Waterfront area and explore more. Beyond revisiting the food market, we also got to walk around the mall, and this marketplace called The Sheds. Here, there are stalls that showcase things like jewelry, clothing, art, etc. The best part about it is typically, all the creators are local and the goods are manufactured locally, meaning they support the local economy. I spent way too much on clothes, BUT it was for a good cause right?

After spending an afternoon pretending like I wasn’t broke, we then traveled to see the Second New Year parade, also referred to as the Cape Minstrels Parade. This was an experience like no other. During this parade, 65 different groups representing 65 different neighborhoods dress up and compete to be the best group. The costuming, music, and face painting is phenomenal, and the dancing was so fun to watch. I did take a minute to reflect on the imagery and talk to our guide, Elmin, about the imagery. In the United States, the imagery presented (such as minstrel or black face type costuming) would be controversial and is considered unacceptable. Yet here, no one seemed to think twice about it, and seemed to be having fun and enjoying the tradition. It made me wonder what the differences were, and when she asked me why it would be a problem in the US, my best answer was because we were told it was. Perhaps it is because in the US we don’t discuss our history, but just try to pretend things didn’t happen or push them down. In South Africa, they are very blunt and open about their history and perhaps that is why they are able to celebrate these images rather than still feeling hurt and pain from them.

I’m on the edge of the world…. or Africa at least.

What a way to end 2018 and begin 2019. Historically, New Years Day has been a day I’ve spent sleeping, moping around, recovering from all the chocolate milk I drank the night before. It has never been a productive one (which is ironic since usually, it is the first day of resolutions so you would think it would be). Yet, this year, I woke up at 7 AM (unheard of in Lindsay Land) and got started with my day. I don’t know what it is about South Africa, but I wake up every morning filled with joy and a love for being alive. This place is so beautiful and I’m not sure how anyone ever gets over it.

Another thing that definitely helped me be up and at ’em was the fact that today was no regular day. No, no, today was…… penguin day. Yes, you heard me, penguin day. But let me not get ahead of myself, because in order to get to the penguins we also need to talk about the morning I spent at the Cape of Good Hope. You always hear about it and see pictures, but none of those can do it justice. It is gorgeous, and truly I was so glad to begin my new year there. I will say, that start came in the form of sweat, as we took a long hike down to see as far as we could, but it was worth it and if you want to get metaphorical, in a way it was like I was sweating out the bad energy of 2018 to bask in the sunlight and potential energy of 2019. I also tempted fate a little bit when I climbed over the railing and down on to a cliff rock to get a better picture, but that’s beside the point, I mean I’m still alive aren’t I? I loved this excursion and it will definitely be one of the highlights of my trip.

Then, it was penguin time. We went to visit the penguin colony at boulder beach and it was one of the greatest moments of my life. Not only was I surrounded by dozens and dozens of penguins, but the beach itself was beautiful as well. My favorite part was when I observed this one penguin carrying sticks behind a rock like a dog, so I looked to see what he was up to. He was making a little nest, and it made me laugh. Penguins are such great animals.

After a quick ride back to the hotel to shower, we went to the house of local folk singer Jennifer Eaves to talk with her and listen to her perform a little. She told us about her experiences growing up in Cape Town and had a very frank discussion with us about what she loved, and perhaps didn’t love, about it. She also got into her creative process a bit, and that was really interesting to me, as I think everyone has a different process. Her music was beautiful, and it was such a unique and interetsing experience that I am very happy I got to be a part of.