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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