Monday, October 31, 2011

On how having too much on your mind can induce writers block...

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant's bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great words of wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
"To eat these things," said my uncle,
"You must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what's solid,
but you must spit out the air!"
And as you partake of the world's bill of fare,
that's darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.
~Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

So I know I’ve been bad at keeping up this blog the past few months, but it isn’t that I haven’t been thinking and reflecting on my experiences here in South Africa, but more that I have far too much to say and none of it is very easily shared. I’m almost done with my time at the University of Cape Town (last paper due this week! yay!) and time is flying by. The city is beautiful and I was quick to settle into a routine. Not being able to move around at night on my own due to the danger has been hard to get used to, but in the end I’m only here for 4 months so I can handle it. And luckily I love my home, like the neighborhood I live in, and have great South African roommates, so I don't mind not spending every night out. I started out feeling very isolated in my school bubble, and though I still very much am, I at least feel I can get out a bit from time to time now. So overall, yes, life is good in Cape Town.

But the dilemma I’ve been having here is experiencing the sharp contrast between rich and poor, black and white, the haves and the have-nots which has been rattling me to the core of my life vision. In all my travels, even some travels in lesser-developed countries, I have never experienced this extreme blatant contrast before. Beggars who expect you to give them 50 rand everyday and get mad at you if you don’t. Informal settlements built right up next to high-income housing complexes, even right next to the international airport. What’s worse is the postcards of the informal settlements (because you know what you want to send home is a postcard of the homes of people who can’t afford homes…) and the highly publicized tours of townships (so you can go take pictures of these poor people who were relocated during Apartheid to badly located and still inadequately-serviced-by-public-transport-housing-settlements). The city street poverty at every corner is hard to bear when its something you've never really had to face before. And the add in of the racial factor (which as an American, I'm aware of but never speak of...) is extremely uncomfortable. It's one thing to talk about the poor and a very different thing to realize that the "poor" are real people living their lives anyway they can. It's humbling and terrifying and you can't help but feel conflicted about the entire state of the world.

Along with this everyday lived experience, I took a course on Development Theory and Practice in which I learned about how development projects rarely succeed in achieving what they aim to and how many even spread negative results in these communities that so desperately need help. One of the big themes we’ve been debating is what the role we play in all this. What right do I have to go into an “underdeveloped” community and tell them they need education reform? Or even clean water? So we study theorists that promote Freedom as Development (Sen) or emphasize the role of communication and democratic discussion in development (Habermas) and try and get some answers. So should I conduct a democratic forum and we decide together as a community what needs to be done? But what if they just want a handout of food every week or a new TV for the community center? What if they don’t want development? What if they feel entitled to be given all they need by the government just because they happen to be born on South African soil?

What do we do? What role do I play? Where do I fit in this fight? Do I even fit into this fight at all, or am I just an unwanted fool from the world of the suppressers? 

This is just some of the stuff that has been racing through my head. Just thought I’d attempt to share a bit of insight into a deeper part of my time in South Africa. So now you see why I haven’t been the best at keeping up on my blogging here, my brain is exploding with private debates. But now that my time in South Africa is wrapping up and I've had some good talks with people and interesting experiences, I feel I'm definitely understanding where I fit in. And I'm excited for life and excited to do my best to live my life well, contributing what I can to this world to make it a better place.

My last paper is due this week and then I have some interesting travels planned (Krugar National Park, Mozambique, and the Wild Coast) so more to come... J