I was asked by UWIRE.com, a college journalism website, to write a reflection of my experience for their “Best Summer Ever” series. Here is the text of my submission. When it is published online, I will post the link.
As the plane approached the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on a bright Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at the orderly, serene suburbs and subdivisions that lay before me.
At that moment, it was hard for me to believe that just hours prior, I was looking out from a plane at seemingly endless miles of shacks, slums, and squatter towns that envelop the city of Cape Town, South Africa.
Let me rewind the story a bit. This past summer, I was one of 300 Duke students to participate in a new service program titled DukeEngage. For my project, I was paired with seven other students and three professors and sent to South Africa for eight weeks to study the anti-apartheid movement, collect oral history interviews from its activists, and partner with several non-profit organizations.
The trip was eventful from day one. Literally on our first day in South Africa, xenophobic violence erupted in the townships across the country. Black South Africans, upset that their economic situation has not improved since the establishment of democracy in 1994, channeled their frustration into violence against fellow black African refugees, most from Zimbabwe.
As we watched the government and various NGOs frantically patch together relief programs for the targeted refugees, it was a clear reminder that we were not in the United States anymore. Violence and poverty are an everyday reality.
The events of our first few days set the tone for the rest of the trip. Like so many developing countries with fledgling democracies, South Africa is truly a work in progress. While the economy, on paper, is prospering, so many people still are suffering greatly—a problem only compounded by the political instability of neighboring countries that draws into South Africa hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Coming from the United States where everything is seemingly perfect, encountering so much human suffering on a daily basis was such a foreign experience for me.
How do I react to a group of church leaders at an HIV/AIDS training session who so willingly share their stories of their many friends and family members killed by the epidemic? After learning the scientific facts about HIV many times, how do I face its ravaging impact first hand?
How do I react to a mother and a father who happily invite me into their one room shack in a squatter town made from sticks, paper, and tin? How can I smile to express my gratitude for them opening their home to me when the living conditions inside are appalling, and their barefoot children have dirt on their faces?
How do I react to a man when he tells me that he was forced to flee Zimbabwe after being tortured for speaking out against Robert Mugabe’s regime? Standing with him on the rooftop of a city church in Johannesburg filled to the brim with political refugees, what can I possibly say to him to erase the pain he has experienced and reunite him with his family?
In the midst of this extreme suffering, my heart was breaking. But I felt alive in a way that I never knew possible. Living in another culture so different from mine and half a world away opened my eyes to harsh realities—of poverty, of AIDS, of political violence—and allowed me to experience life on the other side.
I truly think that living in the U.S. is like living in a bubble. We are sheltered from so much pain and suffering that when we do see an image of a shack in Africa, it seems distant and surreal. That’s why sitting in that plane just minutes from home and seeing the well-planned, manicured neighborhoods below me, I feared that the lessons and experiences of the past eight weeks would fade.
So while life for me continues back in the United States, I can look back at my two months in Africa and hope that I made a difference.
But if nothing else, I got to live outside of the comforts of the U.S. bubble for a while. And for me, that was the best summer ever.