We’ve been in South Africa for four weeks and are literally at the halfway point in the trip, so it should be easy by now to find something to write about. I could choose to focus on living with 11 women and one other man. I could choose to write about working at a museum that seeks to preserve the past through the preservation of oral and living history. Or, I could even choose to write about the beauty of this unique place-where mountains and oceans meet. Yet, each time I tried focusing on a topic, I hit the dreaded writer’s block: although I feel like there’s much to say about each, I need more time to process before I can put each experience into words. This process of processing is something that has been non-stop since I stepped onto the South African Airways airbus in Washington, D.C. four long weeks ago. From being constantly pestered by a toddler on the 17-hour flight to sitting in the Bed & Breakfast, hammering out this blog post, I feel like I’ve lacked the proper time to sit and reflect upon all I’ve experienced thus far. So, instead of giving a broad overview of a few events of the past four weeks, I thought it would be best to choose one moment from the past week on which to narrow my focus and attempt to flesh out my thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
On Thursday, Chad, a university student intern at District Six, took Jennifer, Kelsey, Nate, and me to his home, the township of Parkwood. As Mandy, our supervisor at the museum, drove us through the stripped neighborhoods of the former District on our way to Parkwood, I thought about my only other visit to a township. In our first week in Johannesburg, we were taken to Alexandra, a place I thought was the “stereotype of poverty”: people lived in rows of metal shacks, walked on neglected roads, and even had to share communal toilets. Assuming Parkwood to be similar, as we pulled into a community center under construction, I began to realize the people of Alexandra were better-off. While Alexandra seemed to be fairly connected to the Joburg metropolis, with the presence of campaign signs lining the paved streets, tourists snapping photos, and a gym, home to body-building champions, Parkwood was literally fenced off from the surrounding neighborhoods. Shanty homes were in disrepair, carried a musty odor, patched together from what appeared to be anything lying around, and scattered along dirt paths. The four of us had to be escorted by a police officer, a security measure that made me feel only slightly more secure: as we invaded resident’s homes, I felt like an alien imposing on a lifestyle from another world.
After visiting a few junior high classes, warning the kids about kidnappings and gang-violence, we were dropped in a square amidst a soccer match. Stepping off the make-shift field, Chad pointed to a corner building in the square and told us, “that’s where people get their drugs: I can show you if you like.” The four of us looked at each other, taken aback by Chad’s nonchalant statement, and immediately said, “No.” The fact that he felt comfortable enough sharing this reality, minutes after the police officer dropped us off, ate at me the whole way back to Cape Town. How could someone like Chad, a respectable, generous young man, so lightly drop this heavy truth? Did the police officer know of the dealer’s location and if so, why hadn’t anything been done to rectify the problem? Did the police truly carry authority in this impoverished neighborhood, or were they subject to the will of gang bosses? How many people fall victim to drug abuse, seeing it as an escape from their many troubles?
Maybe I was making too broad of judgments, but it was obvious to notice that the people of Parkwood lived a rough life. Not only that, but, it was another reminder of how privileged I am to be an American, how fortunate I was to grow up in a safe and prosperous community, how blessed I am to have a loving family, and how lucky I am to be a student at Duke University. And it also reinforced how naïve I am: my visit to Parkwood opened my eyes a little wider and reinforced my thankfulness to have this opportunity to learn from the people of South Africa this summer. I hope experiences like this one will continue to shape me into an agent for social justice, so that I may do my best to serve those in need.