The Lessons South Africa Can Teach Us

Sitting at my home in Charlotte, North Carolina on a computer I haven’t seen or touched in three weeks, it is surreal to be writing a blog meant to serve as a reflection on our collective experiences in South Africa. How am I meant to sum up the vastness of our experiences in one blog post? The lessons we have learned may take one year, three years, or a lifetime to decode and understand. However, one thing can be agreed upon by all at this stage: South Africa is remarkable, and the lessons learned there will continue to shape us and help us grow even now that we are gone.

Each time I travel, I like to make a list of ten things I have learned from my experiences. I made such a list in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, and I believe that pulling from these lists is the best way that I have to share a candid and honest view of what we learned in South Africa. Here is a small view of the plethora of lessons we learned during the last three and a half weeks.

1. Ubuntu: I am what I am because we all are.

This is the first thing I remember from our preparatory class in spring of 2012, and one of the most striking lessons we learned from South Africa. In the townships in particular, we learned that everything and everyone is interconnected. The sense of community and societal reliance to sharpen yourself is prevalent everywhere. Ubuntu tells us that everyone is interconnected and that my wellbeing depends on yours. I think back to the District Six museum when I think of Ubuntu. Someone remarked how foolish it was for the oppressors to demolish the houses of citizens in District Six, because when you weaken one part of society, you weaken the whole, and in turn you weaken yourself. Life in South Africa is full of appreciate, and a knowledge that I got where I am today not solely on my own accord, but because of what society gave to me. Ubuntu represents an appreciation of that society, what it offers, and how it has formed you. We all began to learn, and should continue to learn, that this respect and reliance on society is a great way to live and mentality to have when continuing our journeys at home.

2. Have perseverance.

Whether it was tackling Table Mountain together or listening to experiences of Uncle Lionel on Robben Island, South Africa taught us all that perseverance is one of the most important qualities that one can have.  Life won’t always be easy, and we met many people whose lives have been harder than we can fathom. At times things can seem hopeless, as I’m sure they did to Yvette, the refugee from Congo we met, Gloria, who started a crèche from her own funds, Lionel, who spent many years in harsh prison conditions, and Tumi, the girl who I met from OWLAG who spent her life in poverty not knowing how to find a way out. But if all people from South Africa can be give one common characteristic, I think that perseverance is a great describing factor. Nothing seems more forlorn than conditions under apartheid, but people we met, everyday leaders, were able to change their situation and make life better for millions. If they can do that, there isn’t anything we can’t do so long as we strive to model the perseverance displayed every day by people we met in South Africa.

3. Being yourself is key to succeeding.

Find what you are passionate about, and do that. Find your skills, and use them to make the world around you better. Find what you are good at, and make sure that you live your life with that as an integral part. Everyone that we met in South Africa used their skills and passions in order to live their lives and make a difference. Rather than looking at a problem in society and tackling it, people seemed to consistently look inward and find how they can use their own originality in order to serve their country and their people. Think about Dizou: he used his talent for music in order to educate us about South Africa, and uses it daily in order to connect people to their tribal, historical, and cultural traditions. Gloria from the crèche in Khayelitscha knew that she would be skilled at handling children and keeping them off the streets, so she started a successful school. Sheila from Leelapa used her skill at cooking in order to build a successful restaurant and in turn educate tourists about Langa, Uncle Lionel used his art skill in order to educate people about apartheid and build resistance, and Casey and Sarah from Ubuntu used their appreciate of soccer and sports in order to build a successful nonprofit and change the lives of kids in Ocean View. The common thread in all of these stories: people are doing what they love in order to make a positive impact. South Africa is filled with individuals who used what they had and what they knew and tried to make a change for the better. This looks different for all, and makes South Africa into a rainbow nation of different skills coming together. It is important for us to always remember that as we live our lives at home, at Elon, and beyond, if we stay true to ourselves, we can make the greatest impact like those that impacted us in South Africa.

4. Keep an open mind, always.

From the food we ate to the people we met, we learned that if we kept an open mind about what we were experiencing, we were more likely to learn and grow. We all came in with our preconceived notions about what Africa was going to be like, and I am sure we can all agree that those were quickly broken down and replaced by our own experiences and memories about what Africa was really like. I can personally say that I learned so much about life and myself while in Africa, and I never would have learned such things unless I had take a chance, kept my mind open, and open to new experiences. Although I found myself in a constant state of dissonance in South Africa, I believe that state of disonnace is what helped me learn more than I ever thought. Something about Africa made me much more adventurous, and more willing to try new things. I jumped fully into personal growth experiences, like hiking Table Mountain, eating ostrich, playing with children who didn’t speak the same language, and exploring different areas of a continent I had never been to. I opened my mind to people I normally never would have said hello to, like Zenzile who spent years of his life investigating matters of apartheid, or our Cape Town bus driver Miles, who turned out to be quite the world traveler and bearer of wisdom. I learned from South Africa that you could only learn as much as you try and grow as far as you reach. I learned to never hold back, and I think that we all learned that open mindedness could facilitate great learning.

5. Learn to love openly and fully, for it dictates everything

If I had to sum up South Africa in a word, it would be love. It permeates everything there, and the lesson of love was felt every day, hour, and minute of our adventure. There is a reason that several classmates picked “with love” for their African names during our naming ceremonies. The power of love was felt everywhere, and it is important for us to never forget this power and to incorporate it into our daily lives at home now that we have left South Africa. Uncle Lionel said it best at our tour of Robben Island when he said, “We must live in a world where we can extend love”. In South Africa, love dictates all things, and it is felt everywhere. People have the deepest love for their country, for their community, for their schools, for the children, for their tribes, for their townships, for their ancestors, for their music, for their dance, for their history, for their leaders, and for their futures. If we could learn to love with an ounce of that dedication and power, I believe that we can continue to live our lives with the same sense of positivity and resiliency that the South Africans displayed. An important lesson can be seen by looking at how much love we experienced in our time abroad.

But there is something more important than all of these lessons and the countless others that we learned. It is important to write them down, and make your own list of lessons you learned. Yours may be, and most likely are, different than mine. Your experiences may differ, and your takeaways and what you remember as South Africa fades from our recent past will not all be the same. We witnessed so much, and it is important that we record and process what we learned and all that South Africa has taught us. However, it is possibly even more important to use what we learned to grow, and to share it with other. We all are incredibly privileged to have experienced what we did and learned the lessons South Africa taught us. Now it’s time to remember the concept of Ubuntu, continue doing what we live in our separate and daily lives, persevere through anything life throws at us, and do all this with love and an open mind. Let’s take the lessons we learned and show our appreciation for South Africa by using them to grow and teaching others through our exhibition of what we learned.

In reflection, the final question for me is one that I think we all have. It is a question we should continue to think about while we process our journey. Now that you have experienced all of this and learned these lessons, what are you going to do from here to change the world in a positive way and incorporate all that South Africa taught you?

Tweet: The lessons South Africa can teach us will take a lifetime to learn as we reenter into our lives.



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