What Didn’t Change?

Reflecting on the entirety of the South African trip, I am becoming aware of the many themes that this trip had to offer.  I believe Dr. Turner organized the trip in such a way that it allowed our short time spent in Cape Town to have an everlasting effect.  I recall one taxi driver, out of the many interesting taxi conversations, saying in his old Afrikaans accent, “You guys are experiencing more of Cape Town than South Africans experience Cape Town.”  He was commenting on our work at the children’s center in the township of Philippi.  I believe the taxi driver was implying the still prevalent racial clash that divided the country in the days of the Apartheid era and how many South Africans avoid socializing or assisting their fellow country men.  Cape Town has forever made an impact on my life.  Because of my great experience with this place, it has influenced me to further travel the world and especially more of South Africa.  This particular exposure with the diverse cultures of South Africa has eliminated some of my inherited ignorance that americans so often become accustomed to.  Just with talking to my family and friends, I have noticed a difference of opinions solely because of what I took away from this trip.  Needless to say, this limited study abroad has changed my worldview.  Not only do I believe that Stellenbosch is the only acceptable area for viticulture due to the superior location at the base of a mountain, the favorable climate, and the fertile soil ranging from “decomposed granite” to “light, sandy soils” (Wikipedia.com), I also am more aware of the many social complexities and economic challenges.  I think I left South Africa with more questions than I arrived with even though many of my initial questions were answered.  To answer the topic of our final South African assignment, I honestly could just list all of the thought provoking questions I left with; however, for the sake of entertainment and my grade I will explain the derivation of these questions and give some specific stories.

For some strange reason, I remember driving from the Cape Town airport and laughing hysterically at the stereotypical African trees we passed, making me think of the Disney classic, Lion King. I later found out these are called Acacia trees.  After my hysteria died off, my first real sight of South Africa came with a more humbling and somber feeling.  Not 10 minutes from the airport, we are driving to the hotel in our coach bus along the left side of the highway and come across our first shacks of Cape Town.  The initial emotion was disbelief to see people live in something that would be unacceptable back home in The States.  I felt like we were in a movie because Americans see this on television but disregard it since it is not relevant to their comfortable lifestyle.  America certainly has it’s fair share of underdeveloped areas and poor neighborhoods but nothing like townships that consist of shacks the size of small rooms constructed with rusty tin, dry rotted wood, and any other recycled materials these desperate people could put to use.  Due to the lack of space, these shacks are virtually built on top of each other and the people who make up these townships have trouble obtaining the basic necessities like electricity, sewage treatment, or even clean water.  Before traveling to Cape Town, I didn’t fully grasp the concept of what a township was, even after reading A Long Walk To Freedom.  I didn’t understand this concept, until sitting in one of our class sessions where a lady who worked with UCT’s Department of Social Development gave us the history behind these depressing areas.  She opened my eyes on the horrors of the township lifestyle and presented the complex problems of how to alleviate the pain of these poor human beings who live there.  After passing the thousands of tiny cubicles, it took us approximately 10 more minutes to arrive in our hotel located in the lap of luxury.  The Southern Sun at Waterfront is a state of the art hotel with luxurious facilities, beautiful rooms, very comfortable beds, and an exquisite all you can eat breakfast.  I was already learning and developing questions about the complicating social dynamic even before our first class had begun the next day.  How could 5 kilometers from our hotel be one the most sought after tourist destination in the world and 5 kilometers in the other direction could be the one of the poorest areas in the world?

During our class sessions we had the opportunity for many influential leaders in the surrounding Cape Town area come speak to us.  One of the speakers who essentially became our fun adopted uncle, Stuart Hendry, talked to us about entrepreneurship, leadership, personal development, and business.  In our first session he gave us a 45 minute crash course on the history of South Africa.  Their history is much like any other country in the world, especially the United States’, where the history is more negative in nature.  Despite some of the shameful events in history such as the Apartheid and the countless wars over land or race, the majority of the 51 million South Africans are proud of their heritage and history.  With 11 official languages, it is obvious their is a variety of different cultures but they still all call themselves South Africans.  According to Stuart, South Africa is the 3rd proudest country in the world. Even though their is still some underlying tensions of the old ways, the majority of the citizens embrace their history with the understanding that their past is what makes their country unique.  I noticed Stuart’s patriotism while he was discussing his country always referring to himself as a South African.  This nationalism didn’t exist 50 years ago and is very interesting to see every culture and tribe embrace their country’s existence.  Stuart explained the complex history of Cape Town and the racial clashes by saying, “A lack of understanding leads to fear.”  With the colonizing of European countries like the Dutch and the British, it was obvious there would be misunderstanding and eventually lead to fighting within the two countries and even the local tribes.  Going further in this acceptance of diversity, South African tourist advertisements would market to their audience by creating a trademark saying “visit a world in one country.”  Another example of this nation’s pride is the success of the Silulo Company.  Basically this company is an internet cafe located in multiple townships across South Africa that offers services like computer training.  You can see the pride on the owner’s face as he talks about his company’s good doing by empowering the township.  Because of the work like Yuvo and others, South Africa is making strides for advancement by offering more cell phones, ATMs, and cars than all of Africa combined.  Being a biased american, I am often swept up in the “superior” american way of thinking; however, traveling abroad and seeing the patriotism of another country opened my eyes to the realization that different ways are not inferior but just different.  Through this new lens of acceptance, my outlook on all countries has changed dramatically.

Another personal change that I have undergone is the ability to see other people’s viewpoint.  I guess it is similar to the acceptance lens but it is different in the perspective that I can now assess a situation and hopefully see all sides of the circumstance which is a vital skill to have when becoming a leader.  There was some argument among our group, while working at Philippi, that the construction workers at the sight were not treating us with the respect that we assumed we deserved.  I think Dr. Turner taught us a valuable lesson when he shed some light on their perspective of what we were ultimately doing.  In a country where the unemployment rate ranges from 36%-42%, some of these workers have friends and family that would love the opportunity to work.  We volunteers our working for free, so we are essentially taking jobs away from the community and also speeding up a project that the workers would deliberately slow down so they could have a job for longer.  Regardless of the job being a good will project toward children, it is still work for them and ultimately are being paid for their labor in a tough job market.  Hopefully, I will be able to continue to open my mind to all of the perspectives in a situation so that I can become an effective leader.

Overall, this trip was a very positive experience.  I view my home and my country in a whole new light.  I don’t take the simple amenities we receive for granted anymore and I know every day in my shoes is a blessing.  I also have obtained a more positive outlook on our country’s future.  Before traveling to South Africa, I was a pessimist when talking about politics and America’s future.  From the contrast of Cape Town and how people can be so prideful and positive about their simple lifestyle, it made me feel spoiled to not have this same outlook.  The two most critical days, to me, during our study abroad was the wine tasting day and the Philippi work.  Although they are two important days individually, if you look upon these experiences collectively, you can see one of the overarching theme on this trip is the contrasting lifestyles of people.  We go from being in the lap of luxury in Stellenbosch to an area where it’s people have to worry about the simple life necessities.  To realize these few and simple things has helped me become more aware as an individual and hopefully as a leader.  I am so blessed to take part in an awesome trip.  It is cool to think that I didn’t know the majority of the group that I was in but now have built some really strong friendships.  I cannot thank Dr. Turner and his team enough for giving me this opportunity and I will never be able to repay them for the things I have learned in South Africa.

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