Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Week 1: And So It Begins…

Kristin Rogers
Alissa Kretzman
Claire Bergren
Caitlin Fleck

After landing in Johannesburg completely exhausted from our 17 hour flight we had no clue how to prepare for the intense amount of information that we were going to receive in our first week in Africa. While we didn’t know what exactly to expect, once we got here it was clear that we were in store for a broad spectrum of experiences. Most of our expectations were based on perceptions that had been influenced from media and personal ignorance. Instead we discovered social, economic, and political diversity. It became obvious that we were not able to put all of South Africa into one box, and we needed to adapt our preconceived notions in order to leave space for real people and real experiences. This is when we started to break down our perceptions and labels, allowing us to build a new and more realistic image of what Southern Africa really is.

One of the things that overwhelmed us the most were the amounts of contradictions that we experienced and learned about. This further established our need to accept the idea of a broader Africa. Some of the few contradictions that we saw were very present in our daily experiences. There was an expectation to be in the position where we would confront racism but it was not something that any of us experienced at all. Instead we were welcomed with warmth and excitement about everyone mixing into one South Africa. One experience that has stayed with us is the trip into Kliptown right after learning about the Freedom Charter. The principles referenced in the Freedom Charter were a result of a survey done by 50,000 volunteers who were sent out to hear the freedom demands from the people of South Africa. The Freedom Charter then became the core principles of the African National Congress (ANC). (For the full text of the Freedom Charter click here: Freedom Charter) After seeing this we felt positive about the stance that the ANC had taken and the direction that South Africa was moving in as a nation.

Then we were taken over to the other side of the railroad tracks where it became evident that the promises of the Freedom Charter had not been carried into fruition. Before us stood the poverty stricken Kliptown; which is referred to as an informal settlement. As we walked further in, we experienced a severe contradiction to the principles that the Freedom Charter had promised. Streams of sewage and litter ran through the dirt streets, and women and children carried water jugs from the local spigot to their shanty houses made of tin scraps. Immediately, it was obvious that shared wealth, land, accessible employment and housing were not a reality for the residents of Kliptown. Many people that we talked to expressed their frustration with their living conditions, placing blame on the government. Their disappointment with Nelson Mandela and the ANC shocked us, however, we quickly found ourselves placing blame as well. As easy as it was to justify the disparity by pointing fingers, we slowly began to realize the many parallels between South Africa’s disappointing history and our own.

After being struck by several negative contradictions during our first week in South Africa, one glaring positive aspect followed us at every place we went. Despite the lack of sanitation in areas like Kliptown, trash and filth in every neighborhood, and an unprecedented and rising unemployment rate, the people of Soweto continuously greeted us with smiles, handshakes, warm conversations and an interest in what had brought us to their community. Although our group experienced things that angered us and challenged our feelings towards the injustices facing Southern Africa, the overwhelming joy and positivity from the people of Soweto has set the tone for the rest of our semester.

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