My Approach to Africa
My first visit to Cape Town was as a graduate student, exactly 10 years ago. At the time, it struck me that not even a decade had passed since the country was under apartheid rule. It was amazing to me that as I sat next to a black woman in a mini bus that this would not have been allowed only a decade before.
Cape Town in January 2002
That first time in South Africa, I was at the University of Cape Town for a condensed semester – about a month – as part of my New School political science program. Ten graduate students from NYC (NYU, Columbia, the New School) participated in the program, along with about 30 students from sub-Saharan African countries.
During that time, I couldn’t’ have been more out of my element. With not even a vague history of African countries (either during colonialism or since their independence), I literally shut my mouth for the entire semester and tried to figure out the dynamics of the group.
For instance, I tried to understand the fear felt by the 5 Zimbabwe students (of which at least 1 of them was a spy), the tension between white Africans and black Africans, and white Americas and African Americans, and why one of the Zambian students drove a BMW. It was eye-opening to say the least.
What I learned the most was that I had absolutely no idea what was going on and that I had /have a lot to learn. This is my approach when traveling in Africa. I try to stay quiet and observe and listen.
Here’s what I saw in the short time I was there back in 2002:
• My roommate had to leave the program within the first 2 days because her brother, a South African police officer, had been killed in a township when someone robbed him of his cell phone.
• The Zimbabwe students were in awe at the grocery store to see all the food on the shelves – they would simply stroll up and down the aisles without buying anything. (We were provided breakfast and lunch as part of the program and given a stipend for dinner. All the Zimbabwe students saved their nightly stipend to take home the foreign currency to their families.)
• One of the younger students in the program (early 20s) was inebriated and nearly sexually assaulted. Luckily her roommate walked in and saved her.
When I returned from my trip I read many books on the history of Africa and the region’s independence movements. It was a lot of information and unfortunately, I’m sorry to say, now I’m only slightly more educated on the complex history of Southern Africa.
That was Then, This is Now
But here’s the thing about Africa – its history is still unfolding. Three days ago I left Zambia because of the upcoming tripartite elections. The local papers were reporting that the political opposition is refusing to abide by pleas for peaceful elections. (This story, of course, by the government-run / influenced newspapers).
It was advised by the US State department to leave. And my friends working in the nonprofit space, nuns in the Catholic Church, and cab drivers (this are the people I most interact with!) also expressed fears of violence by youth who don’t understand the political manipulations on all sides.
And so I left Zambia and headed to the bordering country of Malawi to miss the potential violence. (And really, on my cross-Zambia bus journeys our buses were surrounded by political mobs several times and there was a general “excitement” in the air.)
So I’m now safe in Malawi. Except that on Wednesday, Malawi is scheduling protests to last year’s election and it is advised to not travel on that day or to stay inside. And aid agencies are being evacuated. So today I’ve paid an exorbitant fee to get one of the last business class seats out of the country tomorrow afternoon.
But this is the real Africa. Each country is still evolving as an independent modern political entity. And this is why I love Africa – because it is a place where I’m constantly learning about all that I don’t know. I just hope that I don’t have to learn my lessons the hard way.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 19th, 2011 and is filed under Africa.