I never thought I would learn half of what I have in the three weeks since I landed in South Africa. Every experience, every encounter has led me to points of clarity about humanity and social struggle. I guess I should have expected it, coming to a country with such a painful history of colonialism and racial injustice. But I didn’t. I came here thinking, “all of my friends go to Europe and I want to go on a safari.”
I realize now, looking back on who I was almost three weeks ago, that my thinking was shortsighted and poorly informed. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about apartheid or Nelson Mandela (or really South Africa in general) prior to coming here. My experience with this country was limited to Candice Swanepoel and Candice Pool, both lovely ladies who have inspired me in countless ways but who could have never prepared me for the South Africa I have encountered. Even the pages of my guidebook had fallen short on filling in all the blanks, as there were (and still are) many.I suppose by some reasoning, it is appropriate to ask why someone would want to travel to and live in a country they know very little about. With this now in mind, I can’t quite be angry that “Why South Africa?” was a common question prior to my departure from the United States. I answered this common question with even more common responses: “it’s different” and/or “I like animals,” both of which could easily serve as justification for visiting other countries with diverse wildlife.
But to be honest with you, I couldn’t come up with any other answers that would do. I didn’t have the background to say anything of use to the “greater good” and my real rationale I managed to hide very well. Let me explain:
I remember an advisor asking me why I wanted to visit Cape Town over cities like Milan or Paris since I indicated fashion as one of my interests on an intake form. I struggled to find some sort of “academic” answer but quickly settled on “personal fulfillment” as one of my reasons. She reminded me to consider how this experience could impact my resume and think more deeply about the importance of career connections. I only thought more deeply about how my intentions were not exclusively to enrich my resume, but rather my overall well being.
See, I came here with borderline selfish intentions, poised to take in all that I could in efforts to become a better, happier, and more adjusted adult. Independence and growth were, and still are, major players in my reasoning for leaving the US. Just days before leaving home, I had hesitations about visiting South Africa and spent an evening in near panic, afraid to leave behind my bubble of familiarity. I’m glad that I did, though. I understood only 2 weeks in, after learning more than I could have ever asked for, that the value of travel lies in its ability to affect our perspectives.
My perspective started shifting a couple weeks ago when I realized how I wanted to approach my first blog post in South Africa. I had been reflecting on how clearly I understood my own culture by being so far away from it and how much I missed home, even though I complain often about living in suburban Pennsylvania (sorry dad). I knew that I needed to address the question everyone had been asking me by explaining how this country has already impacted my personal perspective. It started with a small idea: the notion of missing a full and robust life I frequently take for granted.
Outings to Robben Island, the District Six Museum, and a nearby community called Gugulethu, deepened the understanding of disparity I was developing. Since then, I’ve being toying with a few ideas about luxury, security, home, and selfishness in the midst of learning about South Africa’s history and current struggles in post-apartheid communities. Essentially what I’m getting at is the life I live at home, even as modest as it may be, is a fortunate one. Without any sense of perspective, I rarely paid this life the respect it deserved.
Since a very young age, I’ve been aspiring to a life of success and wealth, never realizing that it has always been sitting on my front doorstep. I’ve noticed that living in the bubble of your own problems reduces your understanding of the world, instilling selfishness into even the most generous and gracious people. The reality is that many people in South Africa were and still are striving for even just the level of security and stability my living conditions in the States affords me and I’ve gone on complaining about the “apparent mediocrity” of my life. We are not doing as poorly as it may seem. We are, in fact, very fortunate to have the opportunities we do and I’m realizing that no matter where I’ll be in 10 years (given that I finally make up my mind about what I want out of life), I’ll be okay.
It’s funny how in some ways, I’ve already done what I set out to do here in South Africa. Through just under four weeks of experience, I have grown to know myself a little better and appreciate those I love a little more than usual. I fulfilled my “selfish” notion of self-improvement but I didn’t do it in the way that I had imagined. Instead of focusing on my self and my own needs, I looked outward. I saw and heard stories of injustice and poverty, leaving me feeling blessed in ways I can’t quite put into words. Personal well being and the pursuit of luxuries are not inherently selfish notions. It is when one’s pursuit is at the expense and destruction of others, do we truly see greed, selfishness, and cruelty. Lives lived well are better when shared with all people.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” – Nelson Mandela
I’m actually glad that I knew very little about this country before my arrival. The impact of its teachings are a lot more profound due to my ignorance surrounding its history. It’s not to say that I never thought of disadvantaged groups in my day to day life. I always would remind myself that life could be worse, much worse. But what if it could be better for the people we have in mind when we say or think those words? What if they had access to the same opportunities? If anything, coming to South Africa has tempered me through the intimateness at which I’m exploring poverty in my studies. I won’t be so sour if I have to stand in the cold for a few extra minutes, knowing that someone, somewhere has stood in the cold their whole life. Not everyone has access to the same luxuries I ignorantly consider everyday necessities, like the hot shower I just took.
In regards to my resume, I’m doing just fine. No matter where I go, whether it be Paris or Cape Town, there are opportunities for career development. I see style on the streets and brand development in our grocery stores. New ways of life inspire my own, from food, to music, to even the words I speak. In terms of business, being a consumer in an unfamiliar market reminds me of my studies on brand familiarity and consumer perspectives. My classes, which are helping me complete my major back home, continue to teach me about people management and finance principles.
While I might be the tiniest bit homesick now, I’m happy to be here and I can see myself five months from now, standing at the airport, tearful over leaving behind such an influential and beautiful place. Until my next post…
With love from Cape Town,
You can see these pictures and more by following me on Instagram: @shawna_117