Having grown up in the United States, I found Africa to often be framed as a continent with far less to offer than is reality. The stereotype in a nutshell, to be blunt, seems to be a bunch of poor people running around in the dirt, hungry, all living the same kind of basic life. Not only does it completely undermine the fact that Africa is the most genetically diverse continent on the globe, it also ignores all of the different climates, resources, languages, traditions and histories that define millions of unique lives.
South Africa alone holds 11 official languages, which are just 11 of over 30 spoken. Each language reflects a heritage that’s branched from their roots into millions of directions, embodied in millions of people. It’s actually hard for me to find words to describe the diversity.
I guess I should to take a step back and introduce myself. I’m Madi. I’m from a small town in Colorado, USA. I didn’t travel far beyond the typical vacation spots surrounding the United States (Mexico, Bahamas, etc.) until I was well into my University career. The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I decided to embark on a sutdy abroad program in South Africa. Below is my class:
I was an anthropology major, incredibly interested in culture and development, and I saw an epic opportunity to make an adventure of an educational excursion. I’d never been to the African continent before, so it was exciting and new, and Google images pretty much convinced me to go to Cape Town- one of the most beautiful cities in the World.
I grew up in a nuclear upper-middle class household, and my parents definitely spilled the occasional “There are starving children in Africa!” when I didn’t finish enough of my dinner. What American child can say they haven’t heard that one before? I’d taken some classes that had bits and pieces of Africa, mainly focused on refugees and humanitarian issues, but I was hungry to see what Africa had to say for itself.
The mountains surrounding Cape Town as you fly in speak a thousand words. It’s the kind of nature that makes us feel human. The kind of beauty that brings peace to your heart- the kind that makes people happy. This city is different because, unlike the typical grey, urban jungle that characterizes a city, Cape Town doesn’t lose it’s edge. It hasn’t been turned on itself and made to fit people, the people fit themselves in the space that the mountains left for us. I have seen underdeveloped places, in different corners of the world, and the biggest distinguishment between suffering and struggling that I’ve seen comes down to people’s access to natural beauty. People with nothing can find reason to smile, because they see the green empirical mountains, and smell the sea spray and they laugh because they are so small and so lucky to be alive. It can be easy to forget this in a place where the buildings create a wall between your eyes and the sky- a problem that Cape Town does not have.
To get down and dirty, South Africa has a huge wealth and development gap. Cape Town specifically, has a beautiful metropolitan downtown, modern restaurants, infrastructure, world-class services and accessibilty to the outside world. But just beyond the city’s edge, lay miles of shack slums, where yes, some people are hungry, running around in the dirt.
But don’t be so quick to think that these people are unhappy. In my experiences I’ve met some of the kindest people here. I’ve seen the most charming smiles, and I’ve seen children happy as clams, just making something special of what little they may have.
South Africa has an aggressively unclean history when it comes to human rights, and real growth out of that dark era is still in its early stages. The impact that Apartheid made on the country is deep, and some people have been pushed to the margins. But South Africa now has one of the best constitutions in the world, coming to be known as the “Rainbow Nation”, where all kinds of people and cultures live together and grow together. There’s more opportunity than ever and people are eager for it. Rich or poor, black, brown or white, South Africans are moving forward. And I think it’s such a magical place to be.
I left behind my life in America because I want to diversify my perspectives, exprience more ways of life, and just be a human in a big world. I want to participate in finding a balance between the up and coming and the traditional.
I found my dream in Africa. Come dream with me.
With love, Madi.