For the past several weeks, I have been reading, seeing, watching, and trying to wrap my brain around the reports of the flooding in Nashville and surrounding areas. The tragedy is the only event of the semester that has really made me feel homesick for Tennessee. I suppose it has reminded me that my roots are in Tennessee, and part of me stays there wherever I go.
I grew up in East Tennessee, a fact that has become a unique part of my identity here in South Africa, where I am the only student in my program that is really from the South. I can really identify the East Tennessee in me, the stubbornness, the independence, private nature, and also the pride. I don’t like people to see me at my weakest, and I don’t often share my concerns, whether small or large, with those around me. I don’t like asking others to help me, which became a real problem at times this semester when I was bedridden with both a stress fracture in my foot and healing from a minor, though painful, surgery. I am proud of the East Tennessee in me, though, and I love where I grew up. I felt at home upon arriving in Cape Town and looking up to see a mountain range next to me. Something about the mountains really makes me feel at home, makes me feel safe.
I also see similarities to East Tennessee in the South African community around me, for better or for worse. Beyond the mountains, I see the racism of the South African peoples that I also experienced at home. I see the matter-of-fact, no-bullshit way of talking that South Africans and true East Tennesseeans share. I see the stubborn, no-nonsense Afrikaaners that, in some ways, remind me of Tennessee hillbillies. I also see the segregation between the races, and strict roles of genders both here and at home. The prejudices that are often hidden, though typically unsuccessfully, in Tennessee, are not hidden here. I have interacted with South Africans more blatantly racist than the most racist of my schoolmates or acquaintances in Tennessee. I have heard more gender-stereotyping here than I ever did from the conservative, arrogant, and sexist business men that were members of the country club I worked at in Atlanta last summer. I am always the only female lifting weights in the University of Cape Town gym. A few of my friends attended a Xhosa ceremony, at which the men sat in chairs while the women sat on the floor. The woman cooked the food and prepared the umqomboti (traditional beer), but were not able to serve themselves until all the men had full plates. A man who spoke could override any statement of a woman at the gathering.
Though this post seems to focus more on the negatives, I see both the good and the bad in two communities I care greatly about. I see both similarities and differences between the two. I see a great need for progress in both communities, but also a great deal of humanity and genuineness.
I go to school in Middle Tennessee, a place that is still very much the same Tennessee as my hometown, but has many differences. I have grown to feel a part of the Nashville community, too, and even to embrace its affiliation with country music, a term I consider an oxymoron.
My academic advisor e-mailed me today, regarding class credit. At the end of the e-mail, she responded to my statements about the flooding in Tennessee. She made the statement: “Parts of Nashville look like a third world country.” Perhaps Nashville is a bit reminiscent of South Africa these days – a first world country and a third world country all in one. Another reminder of the universality of destruction and human suffering. Another connection between South Africa and Tennessee. I am still enjoying my time in South Africa, and am beginning to grow nostalgic that my time here is coming to a close. I will sorely miss the wonderful friends I have made, and will always hold the boys of Bonnytoun House close to my heart and in my prayers. But, as I say goodbyes and really buckle down to get my Capstone project completed, I also look forward to being back in Tennessee. I will treasure every last moment in South Africa, a country with which I will always feel a deep connection. But, when the time comes, I will want to see the Appalachians again, I will want to see the remaining evidence of the Nashville flooding, and most of all I will want to see my family, the people who really make East Tennessee my home.