Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Numero Dos (because I can't say 2 in Xhosa)

Since I last posted, I have been consumed with classes-- WashU is making us take 4 classes, which is unheard of at our level of study as I am taking almost 20 hours of classes a week. I'm enjoying the lectures, though the amount of work is more than I anticipated. I guess I'm still trying to find the balance between study abroad and living abroad. Needless to say, I have much of my experience to look forward to. I signed up to tutor students in a children's home once a week, which I will start next Monday, and I have finalized my spring break plans to travel to the Okavango Delta in Botswana and to Victoria Falls in Zambia. And, most importantly, yesterday I attended my first rugby match in which the UCT Ikey Tigers KILLED the University of Pretoria, and though I only sort of understood what was going on, I am planning on going to more games in the future.

Last Friday we attended UCT's RAG Big Bash, which is analogous to WashU's WILD, except for the fact that it actually is wild. Someone told me that it is the largest party in the Southern Hemisphere, which sounds true and probably is. It was held at an amusement park and had three stages for the performers, who apparently were top African performers. One of the bands, Goldfish, appeared to be just a guy with a trumpet and a guy a with a turntable, but our newly-befriended South African insisted that they were hectic("hectic" is this ubiquitous word meaning crazy/cool/ridiculous, in a good way... I think). The Big Bash was crazy/cool/ridiculous, in a good way and it was probably the first time I felt like a member of the student body instead of just an outside observer.

This weekend our program took us to Stellenbosch for wine tasting at one of South Africa's vineyards. I had a great time (I think we were purposely over-served), and afterwards my friends and I arranged to spend the night in a hostel in town. Stellenbosch is a quaint, sleepy town about 45 minutes outside of Cape Town with many art shops and an African market. Because of its prominent university, Stellenbosch turns into a college town after dark, and we enjoyed meeting new people and exploring a very different part of South Africa as most of the people we encountered were white and spoke Afrikaans. In Cape Town, we have to take taxis everywhere after dark (and pre-approved taxis, to make sure we will not be ripped off or worse), but in Stellenbosch, it was safe to walk around at night, even without male escorts. It was refreshing but also quite sad as it made me realize and how segregated South Africa still is and analyze the inequality and poverty problems which plague the country. A couple of the kids we talked to made some offensive and racist statements, which I do not condone but understand why they made such comments. The students my age are unique in that they have lived in both an apartheid and post-apartheid eras. It will be interesting for anthropologists and sociologists to study these people as adults to see how the political empowerment/disempowerment affected them, especially within race relations, as I can already see the effects in these students in their twenties.

I knew going into this trip that it would be an experience unlike anything else, but despite all my reading and prior preparation, I am still surprised by things I encounter. For example, I was unaware of how few people speak English, with most speaking Xhosa or Zulu and more speaking Afrikaans than English. UCT is clearly an elitist institution, but outside this bubble I have encountered many instances of a language barrier. Race is always a topic of discussion in every issue, from the energy crisis to the national soccer team. In the aftermath of apartheid, Blacks and Whites and Coloureds and Indians often still impose a self-segregation upon themselves, as I have noticed on campus and around town. Despite all of this, it is almost refreshing to hear people talking about racism, whereas in the US such relevant topics are rarely mentioned.

I am not sure how much coverage this is getting in the US—I had only seen one or two articles from CNN and the New York Times before I left—but there is a severe energy crisis in South Africa and blackouts are of real concern. The energy provider has become a national joke, and many are worried about how the crisis will affect South Africa’s abilities to host the 2010 World Cup (which, if you are counting like multiple billboards in Cape Town, is 830-something days away). Inevitably, the energy crisis has become a race issue with poorer Blacks suffering more than the richer Whites, as generators have become a hot commodity for those who can afford them. I have also heard that while Cape Town has only had one blackout since I have been in the country, Johannesburg has them more routinely. I am not too worried as I was given an emergency lamp when I checked into my dorm, but I do anticipate more issues in the future.

On our first day of orientation, our director aptly described South Africa as a First World country with Third World developmental issues. There are some moments where I feel like I am back at home; other times I feel so lost. I have found that it is the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that often makes this country so confusing. I realized this the moment I got off the plane at the stunningly modern Cape Town International Airport and traveled less than a few kilometers before driving past a township of derelict shanties. The government would rather spend millions on erecting walls that shield these townships from view from the highways instead of using the same money to invest in resources for the future of the townships. Because South Africa is not very industrialized, there are few middle class jobs available, resulting in a massive wealth discrepancy and resentment among the classes, and I have theorized that this is why I have had so many bad experiences with waiters here. I can only hope these are just growing pangs of the new democracy and that South Africans will elect leaders who can move the country in the right direction.

That's all for now. Thanks for all of the birthday wishes. I know it's really early in the States, but they're already coming in and it means so much to me.

And a happy Savior's Day to all of my friends in the Nation of Islam.

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