An apology

I touched the Indian Ocean for the first time today.

I am farther away from home than I’ve ever been, for longer than I’ve ever been away from home. I feel guilty for saying that, because the people closest to me are ones who have given up the comfort of their homes and family lives for the educations that we are so lucky to receive.

We’re in Durban for the Mr. Price Pro, an international surfing contest. We’re staying off Florida Road at a backpackers’ hostel that’s currently raging despite the fact that it’s a Tuesday night. I’m a little unsure as to what choices in my life resulted in me being in this situation. Why South Africa? Why sport for development? I need to reevaluate. I’ve considered changing my concentration to Slavic Studies way too many times on this trip. (That’s irrational. I love studying development just as much as I love the Cyrillic alphabet.)

These are the final few days of the Original Plan (i.e., the Original Plan that Self-Destructed, Leaving Us Confused and Displaced and Generally Freaked Out) before we head off to the unknown (i.e., the Football Foundation of South Africa in Gansbaai). I’m nervous but I am looking forward to this change. The idea of being needed, useful, and welcome somewhere is refreshing.

This whole situation has lent itself to a massive plummet in my self-esteem and perception of my own ability to deal with life. I find myself questioning things that should be a given—my education, my social life, my relationship—because it feels like everything is now suddenly completely out of my control. I barely have time to return emails or talk to my parents, let alone do so in a fashion that appropriately portrays my current state of affairs. I feel like I am lacking the mental space to process this mess, and am desperately hoping for patience from everyone around me to understand how spread thin I am mentally and emotionally, and how completely helpless and useless this makes me feel.

I have never been in this city before yesterday. I went jogging this morning and probably could have been mugged on seven different street corners at any given time. I am displaced. I have been flung off a building, and I am flailing wildly in desperate hopes of grasping onto something solid and controllable. There is very little to grab.

On Friday, when we were in Cape Town, we hiked Lion’s Head, which offers a view of the city and surrounding mountains and coastline. I felt happier on top of that cliff than I had in weeks, so thankful to be in this beautiful country and out of a messy situation that had been hanging over us for weeks. There are days like Friday, and then there are days like today, where I can barely string a sentence together over a long distance phone call in order to make up for my absence. 

Maybe what I need is patience from myself.

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Reconciliation

Two phrases said to me today:

“It must be pretty boring to live somewhere as developed as America.”

“You’re very special for having come back to South Africa instead of going to another country you’d never been to before.”

These were not pointed remarks, just comments made over a meal, but they managed to summarize the debates that have been waging war in my head for the last year or so. Work internationally or domestically? Pursue the same project or try something new? On the one hand, I’m young, I should see as much of the world as I can, but why commit myself to one task or place?

Well, I won’t bother writing here about how well that one worked out, but as I am stuck in this (beautiful) country for another month and a half, I intend to try to work out internally my perceptions of these issues more during my remaining time here.

But the questions are always the same when I meet someone new: How are you finding South Africa? Is this your first time here? 

I never know what to say. I usually say cold (winter in the southern hemisphere), and no, I was here a year ago, which leads to some assumptions on both sides that I have some deep connection to this place.

But I’m asking myself–why South Africa? Pure chance, to be honest. The first time was  complete serendipity, and while I would say this year’s trip here has dissolved into more entropy, I still have the opportunity to evaluate my role here.

I am a Development Studies concentrator, and I am spending my summer in one of the countries I spend a lot of time studying–I can’t even count the number of papers I’ve written about HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa over the past few semesters. But bridging the gap between my Sociology of Development final and the fact that I am actually geographically here is not particularly easy. I am in a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, a region that I know, factually, has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, yet this is not what I see. I see some children waving shyly at us when we walk through the town, and I see some who look confused by us. I see the local soccer team practicing on their field, and I see teenage boys walking past with music playing from their cellphones. I see a principal who calls her students lazy, and teachers who welcome us into their classrooms with open arms. I see decentralization, strange migration patterns from rural to urban, families with too little by our standards but maybe enough by their own, and the two people who have died since I was here last year were not touched by HIV but other, more “normal” diseases. I see a few Afrikaners, whites, mainly Zulu tribes. I think I expect poverty to slap me in the face, but really I see mostly just normal people in a context that is completely different than my own.

Is this a more valuable experience for me or for the people that I came here to work with? 

South Africa has eleven official languages, a history wrought with war and apartheid, and an unstable government. In my heart, I deeply love this country for its intricacies, beauty, and fascinating history, but I can never belong here–most people who live here by birth have to fight for that title–and reconciling that with my desire to do good is one of the biggest challenges I face.

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sawubona, Geluksburg

Live weather update from the African bush — it is RAINING. This is absurd. It’s the dry season. The morning was beautiful, but now we’re all confined inside the farmhouse drinking rooibos around the fire.. Life can get rough sometimes.

So, what better time to update the world on the last week or so of activities? Our time in/outside of Jo’berg wrapped up quite nicely. We had a few interesting encounters, including a meeting at the Department of Basic Education (in Pretoria–the same day as the Pistorius trial, actually), a trip to the Apartheid Museum, and an afternoon in Soweto watching Sportstec’s high school soccer leagues. We made the happy discovery that we can feed ourselves for multiple meals on a grocery shopping trip that is equivalent to about $5, and we spent our nights having meetings by lamplight in our tents while the wildebeests and lions mated outside (not a joke).

We headed down to the farm/Geluksburg on Thursday, and pretty much jumped right into getting to know the community. A few friends from last year (who work for Sportstec) were at the farm when we arrived, and it was so nice to see them. Friday morning, we went to the ECD (Early Childhood Development) center which is here at the farmhouse. It was started when I was here last year, and it’s basically nursery school–in rural areas, children typically don’t have the opportunity to go to school before they start at age 6, so they are typically behind when they arrive for kindergarten. The program has grown so much since last year–there are about eight local moms who volunteer every day, nearly 30 kids on the roster, lesson plans, curriculum, a physical education component.. We talked to the moms there and had a chance to play with some of the kids. We also went to the closest elementary school, Maswazi, which is about a minute’s walk from the farm, and saw the Sportstec guys working there. We were beaten pretty seriously in dodgeball (they throw much harder here..), and we were also able to meet some teachers and check out the classrooms. Of the 5 teachers that work there, only 3 were present, and the principal was also gone. That night, we had dinner with some of the local guys, and then on Saturday, we went with them to a Zulu cultural festival in the nearest town, where a bunch of local schools were competing in different forms of traditional dance (picture attached). It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, but it definitely felt a little strange as a group of four American kids to come wandering in, even if we came with some local friends. Today we went up to visit one of the tribal families, which was really wonderful.. I think it can be really easy to feel voyeuristic or supremacist in this type of context, until we see people like that who are so happy just to talk to us about where we’re from or introduce us to their family, and I remember again the importance and symbolism of building relationships.. Overall, the past few days have been a great introduction/reunion in Geluksburg, providing a good overview of the town and Sportstec’s involvement, though I think we still have a million questions we’d all like to ask in order to find out more–hopefully the coming week in the schools will provide some more insight.

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To give a general overview of what exactly we’re doing here (ha ha my favorite question), there’s sort of two components: The first is that we’re volunteers for Mighty City/Geluksburg, and our goal is to use the pre-existing sports projects happening here (facilitated by Sportstec) to build relationships with the community that can help us perform a needs assessment–which can ideally help us complete some kind of community project in our time here. One thought we’re having now for a project is to help them pilot an after-school club where kids can further explore things they’re interested in outside of school (hopefully being able to tie in some type of creative arts/environmental/gender equality aspect.. we can dream!). This will require a lot of research first though, so I’m not sure how much is actually possible in our limited time frame here (we’re spending the next two weeks in Geluksburg, then two weeks traveling, then 3 final weeks in Geluksburg). The second component of our work here is that we’re basically interns for Sportstec, and are helping them design a blueprint for an international volunteer program. A lot of my personal work in the last year has gone towards this, but we’re working on a way to streamline feedback and reports in order to give them an idea of how to do something like this again in the future, particularly if none of us personally decide to continue working on this project.

Which segues into my next and final thought–my involvement with this program. Mighty City, MCAP, whatever, has been my life for the last year (perhaps that’s hyperbolic). I have been working non-stop since I left here last year to make this a reality, but I’ve never been exactly sure why, and never been sure if I was more excited to do it or more scared. Regardless, as happy as I was to see Geluksburg and everyone here, the moment I arrived on Thursday, I felt.. heavy. Struggling to meet the expectations of people here, my team, and myself felt sort of all-consuming. But I think the last few days have allowed me to realize that this is just a summer–or a year–and it doesn’t have to be more, but I’m here, and I’ve done so much to make this happen, and it’s a totally incredible opportunity, so why not make the most of it and do everything possible? Even if I leave here at the end of next month without having created something tangible, or no intentions to return, that’s okay. Building relationships is important, seeing the world is important, sitting down in a Zulu hut and getting to know a local family is important (in case anyone is wondering, my Zulu is rapidly improving), and it would be a waste to have this experience and not learn everything I possibly can. South Africa and Mighty City do not have to be my future–I think I’ve felt pressure to make them that way–but everything I do in the future can be informed by this experience, and that is incredibly valuable in itself.

PS, happy birthday to my wonderful mother! Wish I was there to celebrate with you!

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a post from my tent in Glen Afric

SO, Week 1 in South Africa is coming to a close. I’d like to say that I can’t believe it’s already been a week, but to be honest, this has been one of the slowest weeks I’ve had in awhile. I landed Sunday morning and spent the week adjusting to jet lag, preparing for the other students to arrive, and generally feeling homesick and anxious. My mind and heart were split across multiple continents, and the separation anxiety was somewhat unbearable. There were a few highlights–a trip to Soweto reunited me with some friends from last year, and I had the opportunity to meet with two foreign service officers at the USAID office in Pretoria, which was probably the most legitimate place ever to get career advice.

But my brilliant, fantastic, amazing team landed last night at OR Tambo–it was so great to see them, after a week of feeling lonely andlost. We checked into our accommodations, a game reserve near Mike’s house (head of Sportstec) where we will be until Thursday morning. We arrived here late, close to midnight, and the woman at the reception had us and all our luggage pile into a land rover and drive through this bush-like area to get to our “luxury tents.” (I’ll put pictures online soon, but here’s the website to get an idea: http://glenafric.co.za/) Anyway, basically we’re staying in these awesome, huge tents with decks, stone bathrooms, and heated blankets in the middle of the woods. I could barely sleep last night because there were so many animal noises. I’ve seen so many zebras today. It’s unreal. I’m feeling really happy that we’re here though, because this actually was a last minute plan that we made so that we wouldn’t have to crash on Mike’s couches. We spent the day today lying in the sun (photo included) and sitting on the veranda of the lodge watching the sun over the mountains. It was luxurious–I think, post-finals, we all felt a little guilty about doing nothing, but I think it was really necessary to spend a day recovering.

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Anyway, that photo was just to make people jealous and think that I’m on an African safari as opposed to a world-saving mission. This was probably the last relaxed, schedule-free day I’ll have for the next few months, which is totally fine by me. The next two months will be a challenge in the best way, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting off so easy.

Tomorrow we’ll visit the Cradle of Humankind, braai with Mike’s family, and do a brief introduction of our program and talk about our plans for the coming weeks (meetings and programs in Jo’berg until Thursday and then it’s down to Geluksburg!). I’m really excited for what we have planned, and almost can’t believe that a whole year has gone by and we’ve come so far in developing this program. Even if it just exists for this one summer, I am so happy and thankful to be a part of this process and to be learning so much.

Anyway, blogging feels really weird, so I’m going to stop now and hope it feels better as I do it more often.

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A brief introduction — 

My name is Natasha, I’m a rising junior at Brown University concentrating in Development Studies, and I’m spending the next ten weeks in South Africa. I spent a month there last summer and fell in love with it, particularly with Geluksburg, a rural village in the Drakensburg that transformed me in unexpected ways. I left last summer determined to return to Geluksburg in order to give back however possible to the incredible people I had met there.

I found support from community members in Geluksburg, my partners at the NGO I was working with initially in SA (Sportstec), and the CV Starr Fellowship at Brown. Through these avenues, we have developed the Mighty City Ambassador Program (MCAP), named after Geluksburg’s local football club. MCAP will include Sportstec staff, a team of four international students from Brown, and the town of Geluksburg. I could not possibly be working with a more brilliant, capable group of people. While our main priority is building relationships in Geluksburg and learning as much as possible, we hope to leverage the pre-existing sports projects in Geluksburg to increase sustainable community development.

I expect this summer to be challenging, enlightening, and above all, an adventure. Prior to my departure, I could not be more nervous–or more excited. This blog is meant to chronicle the successes (and inevitable failures) of a summer working abroad in a complex, beautiful country.

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