“If all I knew about Africa were from popular images I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In my weeks leading up to my departure, I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice the flick of raised eyebrows when I told people I was spending a semester in South Africa. I got a few “Wow, Africa?”s and more than a few “What will you be doing there?”s. The unspoken question under these conversations pointed at the belief that it made more sense for me to go there to do something for a semester, like build a library or feed the entire continent with a suitcase full of McDonalds, and not that I had the privilege of attending the best university on the continent and maybe even the planet. For me, attending the University of Cape Town was no question. I’ve always been interested in the way that media portrays the African continent and how that translates to the limited Western perception of both its complexities and triumphs. I actually chose this issue as the topic for a video project for my digital studies class back at USC, and flipping through films and images of South Africa was largely the reason I fell in love with it in the first place.
Nevertheless, South Africa is a country with first-world infrastructure and third-world problems. In the morning, I run down six flights of stairs to catch the Jammie bus up the road to the university, and then I watch as several townships pass by. These shacks are urban living areas in which black Africans, Coloured Africans and Indians were forced to relocate to during the late 19th century until the end of apartheid in 1994.
Seeing as the era of separation was a mere twenty years ago, the discourse about race relations and reconciliation finds a place just about anytime and anywhere: in classroom discussions, during chats while in line for a sandwich and even during 10-minute Uber rides on the way to Long Street for a night out. Sadly, the pain of discrimination is present even on campus, but I’ll get to that another week.
I met Tumi, my roommate, when we got stuck in the elevator together in my first few minutes in the country. She was three weeks early for school, as were many others because they deferred their exams from last semester to this semester, due to the Fees Must Fall campaign. The issue with the UCT system is that if a student is unable to pay the fees for last semester, then they are banned from registering for the next class and are forced to drop out. Loans are difficult to come by and fees are outrageously high for some students who struggle to afford a textbook, much less one of the highest tuitions in the country. “So what do you do since you can’t get a loan?” I asked Tumi over dinner.
“Just pray,” she laughs, but not for too long. Protests and demonstrations happen often, not only because people are frustrated, but also because people in South Africa are so passionately engaged with the political and social issues at hand. To say that Americans are apathetic toward politics would be false, but conversations about our own idiosyncratic elections come up even with the more pressing domestic problems at hand.
On a personal note, I am having the time of my life. After bumping into approximately half of Cape Town’s population by walking on the right side of the street, I’m learning the customs of foot traffic. I’ve found my favorite braai (ridiculously good barbeque), favorite candy and favorite place on campus to read a book. South African slang has crept its way into my everyday language and I’ve learned the un-American way to say water, in the hopes of establishing street cred. I’ve successfully jumped off the world’s highest bungee jump bridge and less successfully avoided being “that kid” that runs after the Jammie with arms waving and backpack slinging. In due time, I reckon.