Ten years ago I went on the trip of my life. I was insistent this wasn’t going to be the case. Not only was I a young woman who had already seen the world, but no singular trip could change who I already was.
I have to say, it’s been only been recently I’ve come to admit the deep changes I’ve felt over the past ten years, brought specifically from the decision I made at 20 years old to travel to Cape Town, South Africa. My friends and family have reminded me for years that this trip was my great love.
You see, I didn’t know I was leaving half of my heart when I left. I hadn’t planned on the the fact that the piece of my soul that finally felt at home when I was in Khayelitsha, in my mama’s house, would stay there. Today, ten years later, so much of me still resides in that home, on that street, in that town, so far away.
Opened Eyes, Opened Heart
I entered the country looking to build upon the person I already was and with the intent of learning something new. I was hell-bent on learning how to build peace and become an agent of non-violent change. South Africa had done this more successfully than any nation in recorded history. So with an open mind and open heart, I scrimped and saved, and worked on convincing my parents it was a good idea to let me go.
I came back a different woman. We all came back different people. Even now, so many years later, so many changes have come about in our lives. Out of the 18 or so of us that took this journey together, many are married, they’re parents, successful, kind-hearted souls choosing to give back their talents to their communities. I’m so proud to stand amongst them today. Looking back at where we started, and who we all are now, we all seemed to stay the course of kindness and curiosity.
I will never forget my mama trying to hide her tears from me the day I left. It wasn’t until that day that I understood she loved me too. It wasn’t until that day that I fully understood the magnitude of my time spent in this town, with my family, and with my friends.
Reflecting at 31 upon My 21-Year-Old Experience
While we were living in Cape Town, we were assigned internships aligned with our interest areas.
My internship while I was there was a roller coaster. I wasn’t sure how to be helpful and I wasn’t all that clear on whether or not I was all that necessary. I’d go between bugging my superiors for work to do and then feeling annoying and just shutting my mouth, feeling guilty about being silent. It’s only now, looking back, that I see my youth. Of course I needed to learn, to listen, and to participate in what the organization deemed appropriate. I had this feeling while I was in South Africa, that I needed to do or bring back something incredible. Even with all the training we received, and the clear, visceral understanding I had that I was there to learn, not to teach, I was certain I needed to do something incredible.
I had no clue what incredible was, nor how I fit in that picture. I felt the pressure to bring home substance; proof to all my financial supporters and to my family that I had gone for a very good reason. Why would anyone pay for me to make new friends? Or to connect deeply with a culture not my own? I didn’t think anyone would, so I pressed ahead.
The leadership on my team was unsurpassed. The leaders of the trip, actively involved in the South African community as well as the scholastic community, prepared us for the trip as visitors to the country. They taught us how to be open, questioning, and respectful of an intricate and layered country. We entered full of knowledge about the nation and its history. In a country with complicated socio-economics, the value of this preparation was incalculable. We were young, so also prepped for the loneliness of leaving our families and homes for an extended period of time. I was more than adequately prepared for the country I was planning to call home for a summer.
Looking back over my journal entries and blog from the time I spent there is like walking through mud. It takes time to wade through the old memories and it’s hard to leave the memories when I’m finished reading. They stick to me when I move forward. Reflecting back on the trip, which I do more often that I believe normal for a summer study abroad trip, I remember the times in my mama’s kitchen, her kindness as I was afraid to try new foods, my complete inability to learn Xhosa, my tears when the neighborhood chickens were dinner, and my confusion of “African Time.”
When I look back now I see a woman pouring out her inner monologue for the world to read.
When I came home my heart was broken. I have no other way to describe this time in my life. For a year or so after I felt like I’d lost my tether. How could I possibly be the woman I was in Cape Town and still be the woman I was in Arizona? How could I live the life I was living now just the same as I had lived it before? How could I possibly keep the knowledge I had gained in my head and my heart and be expected to pretend I hadn’t?
I came home because I had to. Had I not returned for my senior year of college, I would have lost my scholarship and had no clue what that meant for me. I didn’t have the financial means to pay for a year of college and I was certain it meant I wouldn’t graduate, therefore never amounting to anything. This petrified me. This could all happen because I felt this connection to this country and didn’t want to leave. I wanted, more than anything, to stay. There are many days that I wonder who I’d be if I had stayed. This is a daydream I’ve learned to keep brief, the decisions we make are already made, there’s no changing this one.
There aren’t many times in your life that you experience something with an absolute certainty. It’s a deep, a heartfelt conviction that this, this thing is right. I’ve only felt that kind of confidence in a feeling before and it was for a person and not for a country. I knew that was love. These two things I know.
Ubuntu Then and Ubuntu Now
South Africa taught me how to open my eyes. Not how to walk into a situation and have them miraculously opened for me, but how to literally open them myself and see the world around me. South Africa taught me I am a speck on this planet, a momentary blip in time and space. Within that time there is so much to experience, so much to see, do, go through, and for the fleeting time that we get to be alive, we get to choose!
I learned the difference of us vs. them and I learned about Ubuntu. We are all connected. I learned how to be a genuine human who cares about what happens in the intricacies of others’ lives. I became curious about the “why” behind peoples’ actions and about the “what’s next” part of tragedy.
I learned there is so freaking much to learn. And that I want to learn it. I want to understand.
From this time, my belief in humankind was strengthened. I believe people by nature want to understand and the time for dialogue is now. Now, more than ever, people have access to answers. This access whets our appetite for more. We want information and access to challenging and difficult questions. We want to know why suffering happens and we want to make it stop.
We just need to know how.
I always want answers and I’m not afraid to ask. I’m so thankful for this time and for the people I love on the other side of the continent for helping me see this is who I am.
And, of course, I’m thankful to my host Mama for actually changing my African name once she got to know me. She named me one thing, out of what I think was politeness, and very quickly changed my name to Nondwebi, which means Journalist (or gossip, let’s be honest). It was a beautiful gift, thank you.
Thanks for reading, please enjoy the rest of my articles from my time in Cape Town, Khayelitsha, and Observatory, South Africa here. If you have any feedback you’d like to share or experiences of your own, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or private message me here.