Friday, March 03, 2006

Dreaming the Motherland: A Student in Africa

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The city of Durban on the east coast of South Africa.

Not many people know a lot about the port city of Durban, in South Africa, but then again, South Africa itself is quite confusing and mysterious to people who have never visited there. Talking with Liz Andrews was intruiging because of her intuition and her power of introspection. Liz was able to analyze and process many layers of her impressions and encounters from her study abroad experience in Africa, and it changed her as a person.

Dreaming the Motherland: A Student in Africa

Liz Andrews has discovered Africa. Her journey began in the South African port city of Durban and ended half a year later in Soweto, where she received a grant to study attitudes on HIV/AIDS in the Black township. Experiences – with her host families, her fellow students and people in the various ethnic communities changed her view of herself and awakened a new awareness of her own spirituality.

Andrews, who completed her study abroad experience during her senior year at Wesleyan University, organized her program through the School for International Training (SIT). She earned a full semester’s credit for her field study project from Wesleyan, which also arranged her travel, food, lodging and program expenses. Her academic credits did not apply to her American Studies major, but Andrews said that her experience in South Africa gave her even more insight into the American social justice issues she had been immersed in for years at Wesleyan.

“I was really interested in going to Africa for personal reasons, and also to be a ‘world citizen’,” Andrews said. “I feel obligated to travel and learn as much as I can about the world and share those experiences.”

Years ago, studying abroad meant a semester or summer in France, Spain, Germany, Italy or England for wealthy or upper class students who were fortunate enough to have the resources to indulge their interests. Oddly enough, this typically Euro-centric college tradition never really included an idea that there was a whole world of cultures and philosophies that were profoundly different.

Today, African American students who want to see the world can study in Africa, with all the weighty encounters, subtleties and complexities that could entail. For an African American student in Africa, study abroad inevitably means much more than completing term paper assignments and writing reports. A trip to the “Motherland” is an intense, almost revelatory experience, and is bound to touch on personal questions and emotions that transcend classrooms and ivory towers.

African studies have changed dramatically, along with the development of new educational opportunities. We have gone from pushing universities to create Afro-American studies courses to establishing legitimate departments and re-evaluating what a degree in African American studies might mean in our fast-changing world. Study in Africa has also become more feasible because tuition costs have risen to the point that travel and room and board fees can be accommodated in one semester’s college expenses.

I experienced a sign of these changes when I ran into a White student from Purdue University who was doing an internship at a community computer education center in Dobsonville, Soweto. It was strange enough that I met this White American in Soweto, but I was even more surprised when I learned that this nerdy-looking dude had no real interest in computer science but was majoring in African American studies. I knew from experience that it is not unusual for White Americans to take an academic interest in Africa, but I couldn’t help thinking that this young, easy-going college student and his motivations reflected a deeper generational change among Americans. As rap and hip hop blend into advertising and broader pop culture trends in language, music and fashion, suburban culture is evolving with an influence that Cornel West describes as the “Afro-Americanization of America’s youth.”

African American students are also seeing more opportunities and more ways to experience Africa than their parents could ever have imagined. They see rich possibilities for learning, self-examination and building a sense of identity and connectedness in a world where globalization is inevitably creating new ties between Africa and the Diaspora.

Andrews chose Durban because Johannesburg seemed too overwhelming, “like going to live in New York City, but in country you’ve never been in before.” She was also fascinated with its large Indian community, which was brought to South Africa to labor in the sugarcane fields in much the same way that African slaves were brought to work in the Americas. Moreover, the trip was a roots experience, allowing her to explore her ties to Africa through her father’s African American heritage. Her mother, who is adopted, is of racially mixed but unknown ancestry.

Andrews has a curly, auburn red Afro and reddish-brown complexion, with a kind-hearted smile and compassionate, emotional eyes. Andrews’ voice rose with energy as she described a turning point when she visited Wentworth, a mixed-race “Coloured” township near Durban where she felt an immediate connection. Andrews originally planned to do her research project on water delivery in a rural African village – she suddenly changed her mind and decided it was more important to be in Wentworth.

“We had been in South Africa for two and a half months at that point, but I had never had much interaction with groups of ‘Coloured’ people. When I got there I was blown away,” Andrews explained. “All of these people looked like me, and so many things about them reminded me of Latinos in this country, their position in society, their attitudes and so on.”

Her research project – which she undertook during the last three weeks of her stay – involved developing a needs assessment for Women of Wentworth, an non-governmental organization that empowers women through education, training, counseling and job placement. Throughout the week Andrews left her North Durban beachfront apartment, headed into downtown Durban and caught communal “combis” – rickety old vans that typically stuffed 12- 15 passengers and served as an informal public transport system for Africans and Coloureds since the beginning of the apartheid era.

Women of Wentworth had funding to open a community center, and Andrews’ task was to find out what programs, services and activities the Wentworth community would like to see in the center.

Andrews said Wentworth seemed like a déjà vu of ghettos in America, with similar pathologies and social patterns.

“The one thing people said they wanted the most was a place for their kids to go,” Andrews pointed out, explaining that many people felt their youth needed positive alternatives to dangerous distractions like gang violence and crime. “The Wentworth community is similar to any township ghetto community anywhere in the world, in that there is a lot of prostitution, drugs, alcoholism and violence.”

Andrews said she was amazed at the power of African American images and ideals of beauty in South Africa.

“When you first drive into Soweto you drive around this round-about and there is a three-sided billboard and on all three sides it has Dark ‘N Lovely,” she said. “This is ‘Harlem’ of South Africa and the first thing I see is straighten your hair? It was very interesting. Now that I’ve been there, it makes a lot of sense. But beforehand, there was no one to tell me things like that.”

The issue of African American media images and stereotypes arose again later in conversations she had with her Zulu “home-stay” family in suburban Durban, where she lived for six weeks. The head of the family was the spokesperson for the African National Congress (ANC) in KwaZulu Natal province. They lived in a beautiful house, in an exclusive neighborhood, with a swimming pool and a Mercedes. The 16 year-old son loved rap music, and the lyrics.

“He idolized Black American rappers, which is a pretty common thing, I think,” she explained. “He was always going around saying, ‘Nigga, blah, blah, blah’ and I would tell him ‘that’s not really a cool word to say – I definitely don’t say that.”

Andrews continued, with a hint of exasperation. “He thought that was a really cool thing to do, and that was how you were cool as a Black person. I told him that’s a really horrible word, and he was like, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but I’m still going to us it.’”

Andrews also noticed that a lot of parents and older-generation Africans hated rap and hip-hop, and they had formed negative views of African American culture as a result.

“I didn’t realize how internationally powerful anything that we put out there is. The media is a very tricky thing. It’s an amazing resource as far as progress, and technology goes,” Andrews said. “It’s amazing that we can reach one another in so many ways, so quickly. But it also means that everything and anything that we put out there is going to influence on the world. Not just whoever you want it to influence, or whoever you think it’s going to influence, but it could potentially be seen by millions of people.”

Andrews found grappling with media images, perceptions and identity difficult in more ways than one. The dissonance surrounding her earliest experiences in Soweto motivated her to apply for a research grant and to experience the community in a more intimate, authentic way. The sanitized “half-day” Soweto tour organized by SIT seemed very distant and was decidedly uncomfortable, she said.

“For the most part I felt very disconnected and almost oppressive, because we were there on this air-conditioned tour bus and we were looking at people who live in Soweto, who are not benefiting financially from us having access to their lives and their community.” Andrews explained. “So I really wanted to go to the community in a more responsible way – not that doing research is always or by any means the most responsible thing – but I wanted to be more engaging with people.”

Andrews’ return to Soweto opened her eyes to a new way of thinking. Her research focused on HIV/AIDS education for high school students, evaluating their struggles, feelings, ideas and attitudes towards the spread of the disease. South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, with some estimates indicating that as much 20 percent of the adult population is living with the virus.

Andrews was surprised to find that despite generally successful dissemination of information about AIDS, many were still unwilling to use condoms and practice safe sex.

“The one thing that struck me the most was this idea that they’re going to die anyway, so it doesn’t really matter,” Andrews pointed out. “People will say, ’I might get shot today. I might get hijacked tomorrow. I might get stabbed. I might get robbed. A lot of things can happen to me. You’re telling me I might die 10 or 12 years down the line – who cares?”

Andrews found this attitude was hard to accept, but when she tried to put herself in their shoes, she couldn’t help concluding that there was certain strange logic, and although she didn’t condone it, she felt she understood the young Sowetans. Nonetheless, their attitudes also reflected something of Soweto’s history of deprivation and a subsequent devaluing of life.

Throughout her Africa experience, Andrews moved between different people and communities that were far removed from her own background, yet she found ways to identify with and understand them. In South Africa, people commonly speak about the African ideal of Ubuntu, a feeling of oneness and community that is intrinsic to African culture. Ultimately, study abroad in Africa gave Andrews her own personal experience of Ubuntu that transformed her feelings about herself and her outlook on life.

“Being in Africa helped me realized on a personal and societal level, how much power I have. And just how important it is to make every decision in your life a good one,” Andrews says. “Selling yourself out in any way influences the world. Selling your people out is really detrimental to everyone. It’s like the whole idea of Ubuntu – interconnectedness – everything you do effects everyone else.”

It was a powerful, life changing realization. What more can a college student expect from a study abroad program in this daunting new world of global possibilities?


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