Hello! It’s been a solid 7 weeks since I first arrived in South Africa. While it certainly feels more familiar now, I wanted this blog to reflect on some takeaways I’ve had from my experience that go beyond my work environment.
So far, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a myriad of pockets across South Africa—from Johannesburg to Mpumalanga to Kruger to Capetown. One of the coolest places I’ve experienced lies just outside Joburg—a small town called Soweto.
At Awethu, I am in meetings of one kind or another at least once a day and sometimes those meetings take me to places like Soweto. This city lies right outside of the powerful Johannesburg but is largely composed of townships (as well as a street with not one but TWO Noble Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu).
Going to places like Soweto gives me quite a bit to process.
In Soweto there are nicer suburban houses next to matchbox shacks. Their owners chose not to separate out to their own distinctive areas because people do not want to be away from the incredible community created in townships. It is something I honestly don’t think someone could truly understand without living it, but you can recognize the dynamic. Shops are embedded in houses, more people spend the day on the exterior of their house than it’s interior, and there’s certainly a kind of fluidity about belongings.
For people that we see as having so little—they have something quite rich that for most of us, seems to be out of reach.
In Soweto and similar areas, I suddenly feel incredibly conscious of the color of my skin. It is rare I feel this way in America.
I felt so aware of my skin tone because I felt a pressing need to make a positive impression, mostly to combat the negative association that might come with my skin. There is a brutal history white people have written in South Africa and so this created completely justified negative perceptions.
I want to be very careful not to equate my experience to that of a black person in America—it is not the same in the slightest. However, I do believe what it lends me is a greater perspective. It is not comfortable to feel out of place and I imagine it is especially difficult to combat stereotypes that have been created FOR not BY people of your race.
With all that being said: as soon as you meet people here, it is a completely different story. They seem to have the incredible ability to take you for who you are and forget what they thought you might be. I wish all people were capable of this.
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to explore places like Johannesburg and Capetown (where I fell in love big time) and Soweto. There are definitely challenges to coming to a foreign place without knowing anyone here beforehand, but I am certain that it adds to the experience. I have been lucky to find pockets of communities here, who have taken me under there wing (sometimes literally in the span of minutes) and given me the full South African experience—from rugby to jazz to markets to dinners that go on until all hours of the night. This collection of people have made my time here meaningful and given me the best reason to return—which I fully intend to do.