What Southern Africa Meant to Me

Never have I traveled to a place so unprepared.

I barely touched any guidebooks. Nor did I look up information online. Few of my friends had ever been to South Africa, and none that I knew of had been to Botswana. I'd been traveling long enough to not trust the media, or unverified word of mouth.

What little I knew came indirectly. Last summer, in Indonesia, at the sparse, overpriced bookstores, I found several cheap copies of Nelson Mandela's biography, Long Walk to Freedom. I read it just a few days, immersed in a story that, I realized, I knew far too little off, shocked that apartheid, and Mandela's imprisonment, lasted well into my own lifetime

I came here ignorant, willfully so, too busy to research, and trusting that my friends here would show me the way. With no agenda, I thus had no expectations. My goal was simple – to learn about life here, to experience it through the eyes of my friends, and figure out my own place. A new region, the furthest that I have ever been from the United States.






It is hard to sum up a trip, especially one so short and so dramatic as this one. For the first time in months, I had time to relax, to think, and to observe, and it took me a while to adjust. Adjusting from not being in Graduate School is tough.

My philosophy is that everywhere in the world, most people are good. My seatmate during my journey from South Africa to Francistown, Botswana, said it himself well “In South Africa, there are maybe 6 million tsotsis (local slang for gangster) but 40 million good people.” Yes, nowhere else in the world that I'd been was crime such a pervasive issue – electric fences, deadbolt locks, gates, security officers everywhere, but I never met any of those criminals (for more see my Botswana-host Porscha's post on her “fortress”)

The history here was also overwhelming. I'd read about Apartheid, about events like the Soweto uprising, or the Rivonia trial, but to be here, walking through Velikazi street, or through the fantastic Hector Peterson memorial and museum, was something else. At Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng, I'd felt clear, undeniable evil. But here, everything was more complex.

I was asked by South Africans, repeatedly, to explain race relations in America, where we have our own long and often sad history, and how it compared to the situation here. It was a question that was not easy to answer. I never experienced racism directly, but that didn't mean I never experienced it.

I was definitely aware of my race in South Africa. I blendt into this colorful world, often being confused for a Durban Indian, (Durban being the city in the world with, apparently, the largest Indian population outside of India). With my hoodie, I took minibuses, walked around all-black train station, and besides a few persistent beggers, encountered no problems. Could I have done that if I was white, or Asian? Or female? Who you are determines your experience just as much as where you are, and that was a fact that I was unable to ignore while here, where your racial identity determines so much about your life and your social status.

There were many things I did not like about South Africa and Botswana. The pervasive use of English over the native languages, the glorification of American style consumerism, the inequality, the lack of knowledge about environmental issues, the evangelism, but none of those determined my experience. I never felt totally comfortable here, and I understand why. A month wasn't enough time to understand, to find my place. I barely scratched the surface of the complexity of this country.

That means just one thing. I'll have to come back.

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  • I know what you mean about the dislocated feeling you have when you visit a place without having prepared for the trip. Your observations of South Africa are unusually honest, too.  I will make one comment here that is not about South Africa, but about the way English has evolved: You say "Could I have done that if I was white, or Asian? Or female?" Actually, I believe you are Asian in origin, but the word "Asian" has come (inaccurately) to mean east Asian. 

    Anyway, I enjoyed your comments, and they inspired me to go to your website. 

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