31 Days · africa

#write31days {Learning to Belong}

It had been a long few weeks, full of training and language immersion. After studying the language for up to 4 hours each day, I was already dreaming in Setswana, despite having only been in South Africa for a month. We were in the thick of our 8 week “pre-service training” in South Africa, and we were already running ragged.

So we welcomed the bus ride to Johannesburg, where we would spend the day at the Apartheid museum, and later have our first real chance to go shopping for all those things we forgot to pack.

We had learned about Apartheid, racism, and internalize oppression. We had already watched documentaries on Nelson Mandela and Apartheid-era South Africa. I had read several books prior to leaving the USA.

Though I had learned about Apartheid, I didn’t fully understand it, deep in my heart, until I wandered through that museum. Watching videos, hearing the voices, and seeing photos, often brutally honest.

And really, this was just the first step in the learning process. For the next two years, the legacy of Apartheid would play out in front of me, time and time again. I would be called “lekgoa” (white lady) rather than my name. I would be greeted in Afrikaans, rather than English or Setswana. And I would see fear in my students eyes for the first few months I taught.

A Gardening workshop in Venda, Northern Limpopo, South Africa.
A Gardening workshop in Venda, Northern Limpopo, South Africa.

And yet, I also saw many, many examples of inclusion. I would be name “Keamogetswe”, which means “I am welcomed”. I would see joy in my host family’s faces when I spoke their native language. I would see shock, then happiness, when I picked up a shovel and started digging in the garden. I would see many people go out of their way to help me out, despite our racial/ethnic/cultural differences.

That day at the Apartheid museum, I truly learned about Apartheid. And for the next 2.5 years, I learned how South Africa was changing their legacy and leaving behind the attitudes of Apartheid.

My Peace Corps host family.
My Peace Corps host family.

And yes, I saw some truly awful examples of racism. But more often, I saw examples of inclusion.

-Jen

#write31days
#write31days
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4 thoughts on “#write31days {Learning to Belong}

  1. Perfect description of what it feels like! “Lekgoa” wherever you go, that reminder that you actually don’t belong…
    Apartheid is so difficult to grasp, especially in the north. But I felt despite my in-between-state it gave me lots of opportunities to mediate. I didn’t fit into either category but I could minister to both and get people connected. I had many conversations where whites were surprised at my work in the townships, and blacks were grateful to get to know whites who wouldn’t look down on them. At my farewell party I brought them all together, that was pretty interesting and impressive how long the way is that South Africa still has to go…

  2. Hmm…. very interesting. No surprise, but I can relate to a certain degree. I can only imagine what it felt like to walk and feel the struggle. I’m glad that you were there long enough for people to get to know you for who you are. I would love to hear more about this aspect of your experience.

    1. That’s the best part…having been there long enough to see opinions change on a personal level. That’s where the real change happens!

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