Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Feeling At Home in the Mother City

            Every year, thousands of people travel to other countries to volunteer in areas that have lower socioeconomic status and worse living conditions than their own.  These service trips are usually the only times that these people will ever be in these areas, and they leave with only the memories and pictures of their experiences.  So when thinking about my trip to Cape Town this summer, I knew I wanted to have more of a connective experience; I wanted to make relationships with the people I met and really continue my efforts to help the people I was about to meet, even after I returned to the United States.  But I was not completely confident that I would be able to do this.  I worried that being a financially stable, Caucasian American I would be so foreign that I would not be able to connect with the people I met and I would simply have to complete my program and leave.  The thought of completing my program superficially, without cultural immersion or personal connections, equally saddened me and worried me.
Funny moments with a child from the
Baphumelele Children's Home
            But soon after arriving in Cape Town, I realized that my fears were unnecessary.  I learned that as long as I made an effort to get to know people and understand their culture and perspective, I was accepted and welcomed by many.  A simple smile and “Molo” (“hello” in the local language, Xhosa), was a solid start, and asking people about their lives and ideas, as well as attempting to learn some basic Xhosa phrases, paved the way for some budding relationships in which I now feel accepted and less like a foreigner.  During my time in Cape Town so far, there have been several instances in which this has occurred and I’ve truly felt this bridge between cultures.
The Bikanis, my home stay family!
            My second weekend of the program was spent on a home stay visit in the Zwelethemba Township, outside the city of Worchester.  During this time I lived with a local family, eating with them and joining them for most activities.  Although initial nervousness led to awkwardness on both my end and my home stay family’s end, by the end of the visit I felt right at home.  The South African people have a way of welcoming newcomers in an endearing and friendly way.  They offer you food and drink, even if they have little of both in the first place, and they make you feel at home as best they can.  By asking my homestay family about their ideas and trying to immerse myself in their lives as best as I could, through going to the market with them or partaking in African rituals with them, I was able to further this welcoming, and make a connection with them.
Learning how to make samosas in Bo-Kaap
            Another cultural interaction like this occurred during my visit to Bo-Kaap, an area of Cape Town that is occupied primarily by people of the Islamic faith.  Although she had never met us before, a local Bo-Kaap woman invited us into her home after the tour of the area, and taught us how to cook traditional Cape Malay food.  She had the typical welcoming demeanor that I had experienced with other South Africans, cooking for us and teaching us about her culture, but I truly felt at home, in her home, when she sat down next to us at the dinner table and we asked her about her life in Bo-Kaap.  She told us about how communal life was for everyone in the area, and how she had grown up in Bo-Kaap and watched her children and grandchildren grow up there, too.  If we had been foreign Americans when we had walked through her door, by the end of our visit we had been more than that.  By extending that extra effort to get to know her, after she had welcomed us into her home, we were able to have a connection that crossed the lines drawn between our very different lives.
The OVC group at Yabonga
            But the place where I have really felt this bridge between cultures is at my internship site, Yabonga.  Although I will admit that I don’t feel this connection with every South African at the site, and it took the last four weeks to have the connection with those that I do, I have started to feel right at home at Yabonga.  Initially my fellow interns and I had felt like foreigners who were welcomed but still had this wall between ourselves and some of the gap year students at the site.  But the last few weeks have been spent getting to know these students, as well as some of the staff members, through talking to them about their lives in the Khayelitsha Township, playing soccer with them, seeing them perform traditional African music and dance and learning their native language of Xhosa.  And these efforts have definitely made a difference.  I feel more and more accepted, just by having gotten to know the students and working with them throughout the week.  I look forward to going to Yabonga because I don’t feel out of place there anymore.
Khayelitsha, the township Yabonga is in
A former Robben Island prisoner
giving us a tour of the prison!
            Developing relationships with some of the people I have met has been one of the most rewarding parts of my trip to South Africa.  Although coming into the trip I had worried about that cultural wall between my life and the lives of the people I was about to meet, I have found that making that extra effort to learn about people’s lives and learn bits and pieces of their language, even after they have welcomed you into their life, is what makes the difference.  I know that these relationships will last longer than just the duration of my trip and I look forward to returning to South Africa to continue doing what I love and helping improve South African public health.

-Lara Gaffney

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