1. My conception of “real Africa”
The Lion King is one of my favorite movies, and for many Americans, it is the most prominent representation of Africa. We learn in school that Africa is a diverse continent, not some homogenous country, yet before studying abroad, a savannah with lions on the prowl was the first image in my mind.
I hadn’t done much research before leaving for Stellenbosch, but I had done a little exploring on Google Maps street view. I had learned on my previous trips abroad that the best days were the unplanned ones, so I was ready for an adventure. However, I was worried about being able to buy toiletries, get cash, and get a SIM card once I arrived, so I was comforted when I found a mall a few blocks from campus. While some were picturing me in a hut in an open field, I stepped off the bus into a modern town. There were blocks of tall, white, European-style buildings and streets filled with cars. In fact, that culture shock I’d been warned about so many times was almost non-existent. Stellenbosch felt so western that I sometimes forgot I was in South Africa.
Our excursions took us farther into nature and into areas that looked like the stereotypical Africa many expected, but it was definitely glamping. The first trip I planned with my friends was spent in Cape Town. It was great, but the only animals we saw were in museums, so after finals, we decided to go to Namibia because of the opportunity for adventure. We got some planning advice from our Resident Director’s sister, and my friend specifically wanted to know if there were any “real” towns we could stay in for a night or two. We were planning to stay in Swakopmund & Windhoek, both of which are fairly geared toward tourism. We realized the term “real” sounded wrong almost as soon as it left his mouth. We’d all been thinking it, but we just didn’t know how else to say that we wanted to see wild animals and miles of open land, like we’d seen in the Lion King as kids. This sparked a realization that all of our experiences were representative of the “real” Africa. University life, the cafes, the grocery stores, the busy asphalt streets, albeit heavy with western influence, were South African, making them African.
2. A new appreciation for water
I arrived in the Western Cape of South Africa during a major water crisis. The drought began to fill my social media feeds in the months before departure, so I packed plenty of hand sanitizer and dry shampoo, anticipating the worst. At customs in the Cape Town airport, there was a big poster saying “save like a local.” The restrictions were fairly reasonable, but it was an adjustment. I learned that “every drop counts,” as they say, and that everyone has a responsibility to contribute.
While I enjoyed the lack of water restrictions on our trip to Namibia, I realized how much my views on water had changed. When we finished sandboarding, the instructors asked if anyone was thirsty. After filling some cups, they proceeded to dump half a gallon of water right onto the dunes without a thought! My friends and I just looked at each other in utter shock.
When I got home, I was forgetting to flush the toilet because after 5 months, it was no longer a part of my routine. I’ll be first to admit that I don’t take 90 second showers anymore, but I am much more conscious of my water usage. I often have to remind myself there aren’t restrictions here because I’ll find myself becoming annoyed when I walk by a decorative fountain or see someone washing dishes with the water running. Instead of seeing the drought as South Africa’s problem, my experience reinforced my understanding that this is a global problem. Cape Town was the first of many cities to experience a water crisis, and the United States may be in trouble soon as well.
3. View on development projects & foreign aid
Teaching at iKaya Primary School through the Learning, Sustainability, and Community Engagement course was what drew me to the program in Stellenbosch. In the first lecture, we talked about how we weren’t going to play the white savior. We had to consider all stakeholders, empowering our students through education, not just making ourselves feel good for helping these poor African children learn English. Most importantly, we had to make sure that we were playing the long-game. Even after the semester ended, and we left, we wanted our students to have the ambition and confidence to continue empowering themselves, in the hopes of escaping the depravation trap that keeps many black South Africans in townships.
After learning and teaching for a semester with my students, I see that every decision in a development project needs critical analysis. The LSCE course helped me gain perspective on what a good development project looks like. This changed how I feel about lot of humanitarian efforts and how I will approach similar projects in the future. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be lending a hand around the globe, but I now take a more critical stance when evaluating the successes such projects.