Wednesday, January 6, 2010

anticipating departure

Eleven days from today, I will take flight from the Knoxville, TN airport. By route of Washington D.C., Dakar, Senegal, and Johannesburg, South Africa, I will finally arrive in Cape Town, South Africa on January 19, after almost two days of traveling. Then, the real adventure begins! I don't yet know what to expect with my study abroad experience... but I guess I will learn as I go. I know that I will take three classes: Social Research Methods (for use with my service work), A Local Context Course on Poverty and Development, and a language class (either Afrikaans or Xhosa). With the rest of my time, I will be working in one of the townships surrounding Cape Town, and will incorporate research into my work. The combination of classes, research, and work will then come together in a final capstone project. I do not yet know the nature or location of my work.

Aside from classes and working, I hope to also have time to explore the city of Cape Town, and maybe further into the country of South Africa and African continent. Today I registered for the Two Oceans Half Marathon, which takes place in Cape Town on April 3. Hopefully I won't be too terribly out of shape for it. I also plan on hiking, especially as I will be living right near Table Mountain National Park, which, from the pictures, looks like it might be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Table Mountain runs right up to the Western coast of South Africa, so I'll also be near the beach. I hope to see the African penguins that congregate on South African beaches! I also want to look into hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but I don't know if that is something that will actually work out. It looks like it's a 5-7 day trip, you have to go with a guide, and it's expensive! But, it would be pretty incredible, so I'm not ruling it out yet. And, of course, the World Cup will be in South Africa this summer (or I guess, winter, since I will be in the Southern hemisphere). I still need to work on getting a ticket to a game... but even just being there for all the excitement is sure to be an amazing experience.

I've heard incredible things about the country of South Africa, and I am anxious to arrive and get settled in so I can explore and get to know the area. From the little I have learned so far, South Africa has a fascinating and unique history and identity. The three largest ethnic groups in South Africa are Black Africans, Coloureds, and Whites. In South Africa as a whole, the demographics break up as follows: approximately 80% Black, 9% White, 9% Coloured, and 2% Indian. In Cape Town specifically, however, Coloured people make up about 48% of residents, Black Africans account for 31%, Whites 19%, Asians 1.5%. These demographic compositions demonstrate that South Africa is made up of three very large ethnic population. Even minorities in this country are large and present in the country's population and politics.

As a clarifying point, in South Africa, "Coloured" is a term distinct from "Black," unlike the historical use of these labels in the United States. According to Wikipedia, "Coloured" "refers or referred to an ethnic group of mixed-race people who possess some sub-Saharan African ancestry, but not enough to be considered Black under the law of South Africa." I learned from a book I am currently reading that the Coloured population came into existence about nine months after the White colonists first arrived in South Africa in 1652. These White male colonists arrived without women... I think the rest is clear. As I understand, the Coloured and Black groups in South Africa were both treated atrociously by the white government in Apartheid South Africa. Black and Coloured, however are two very separate identities, and these two groups apparently hold animosity toward one another and face very distinct sets of issues in South Africa today. The townships, communities left over from Apartheid segregations, are generally either exclusively Black or exclusively Coloured. I do not yet know with which population I will be working more closely.

As an attempt to prepare myself for spending almost 6 months in South Africa, I have been Google-searching and reading up on the country. Mostly, however, I have just realized how little I know, and how little attention we Americans pay to the rest of the world. It amazes me how recent the atrocities of Apartheid occurred, and it baffles me that I knew nothing of it until recently. I read the novel Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton last week, and I recommend it to any reader. It tells an incredible story, but also incorporates insights about life in South Africa and Johannesburg, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I am currently reading Kaffir Boy, an autobiography by Mark Mathabane, a Black African man who grew up in Alexandra, a township near Johannesburg. From this book, I learned about the origin of the emergence of the Coloured population. Only about 75 pages into the book, I have already read stories of Mathabane's early childhood that deeply disturb me, and remind me of the evil and destruction human beings are capable of imparting on one another. This book has also highlighted the difficult tension between tribal tradition and pride, and progress and survival in a changing country. Mathabane's father was deeply loyal to his tribe and their traditions, and he harshly punished Mathabane when he did not adhere to the specific traditional behaviors. It seems like Mathabane was punished by the Whites BECAUSE of his tribal African ancestry, but was also punished by his tribe for trying to survive in the new South Africa. My dad is currently reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography, and has told me how the White government sought to uphold the tribal distinctions in South Africa, because it disallowed the Black South Africans from uniting against the oppression of the Whites. It seems like a clever, and of course malicious, tactic on the part of the Whites. Mandela grew up with a tribe, and then later ran away with his brother. He said that before leaving his tribe, he identified as a Xhosa (his tribe). When he came back to his family after running away and finding his own life among other South Africans, however, Mandela wrote that he identified instead as an African. This all may seem tangential and irrelevant, but I find the tribal identities and separations a fascinating and significant aspect of South African history and politics.

One last thing on South African politics. Apparently, the current South African president, President Jacob Zuma, just got married for the fifth time. He now has three wives (one wife committed suicide, and he divorced one). In addition, he has several children by women other than his wives, AND is engaged to another woman. He was acquitted of a rape charge in 2006 (this was before his election). Interestingly, however, he points out that many public figures have illegitimate children that they refuse to recognize and provide for. Zuma's honesty also means that he acknowledges and cares for every child that he fathers. He is quite an interesting figure, and this is only addressing his personal life. His political actions add another dimensions to the story, as well, but I haven't learned enough to comment on these aspects of President Zuma just yet.. I'll leave out my own reaction to all of this, and let you make your own.

Here's a link to the article about his latest marriage:


  1. Lisa! I'm so excited about your adventure and can't wait to read all about it. It sounds so interesting, and it's awesome to have a friend who is willing to travel the world, especially to somewhere so misunderstood and unknown to us Americans. Plus, you're obviously super smart, so this blog will rock. Anyway, update whenever you can or else! Good luck and safe travels, my love.

    PS - As a Brazilian, I'm so jealous you get to see some World Cup action.

  2. Lisa: I look forward to following your blog, and hearing about things in Capetown. The recent history of South Africa is one of the great movements and transformations of my life time. I guess things are "still in the balance" there to a certain extent. I have great hope for the country and its people.