“Looking is Free,” but Experiencing is Eye Opening
Prior to stepping foot on the African continent and touching down in Cape Town, I had a certain pre-conceived image of this part of the world. Yet, many of these visuals of South Africa that I held have failed to prove realistic. Nowhere in this image that I held of South Africa were there primary schools that I felt completely familiar with the classroom layout, public schools in Johannesburg with 1-2% dropout rates, or former felons that I share more similarities than differences with. Put simply, I have uncovered an overwhelming amount of similarities between South Africa and our home of the United States of America.
The event that truly shattered my toxic mindset built upon the belief that the people of South Africa are extremely different in their ways and livelihood was the brunch at Victory Outreach rehabilitation center. Victory Outreach provides recovering drug addicts a free opportunity to fully rehabilitate amongst the presence of other ex-drug addicts. Unsurprisingly, it was intimidating to enter the room full of these ex-drug addicts and strike up conversation. Yet, similar to many of my experiences thus far in South Africa, once the initial barrier of communication was broken with these men it became easy to carry on engaging conversation and reach common ground. Furthermore, the ex-addict that I happened to pull up a chair next to was an eighteen year old. The conversation that ensued involved his telling me of how he got caught up in a few poor decisions and eventually landed at Victory Outreach. My original expectation was that I would struggle to look these ex-addicts in the eye and find easy conversation, but after discussing with this boy I was overwhelmed by the fact that, with a few different decisions, our roles could have easily been reversed.
The visit to Victory Outreach also paralleled with our visit to the Langa township school in the way that as soon the initial barrier of communication was broken, an overwhelming amount of similarities presented themselves. These similarities presented themselves during my conversation with Sithembele, the Head of Teachers, and during my time walking to each classroom. The passion and enthusiasm of Sithembele’s was extremely evident and it was clear, after discussing with him, how much he loved teaching at his school. After walking around Sithembele’s school and hearing him educate us on the everyday schedule, the school’s accomplishments, and the daily challenges of teaching, I felt as if I had just toured any middle school in the U.S. and heard from a teacher facing the exact same challenges as those I grew up in the classroom with. This realization of how similar schooling in South Africa is to that of the U.S. demonstrated to me how often I generalize my opinions of others and other countries. The reason why Americans hold the images of violence and neglect for education in their mind when picturing South Africa is because we assume that parts of the country are representative of the entire country. In reality, there are teachers, such as Sithembele, that teach in the oldest township in South Africa and still bring an inspiring amount of passion to the classroom every day.
With my first hand experience and knowledge of education in South Africa (although we were unable to truly experience rural schools), I have come to understand how harmful generalization can be, in terms of making assumptions about people and a country. If I were to hold firmly on to my previous idea and image of South Africa, without experiencing what the country truly is like, I would live a life of falsity and ignorance. Another instance that demonstrated to me how I am quick to dissociate the issues of South Africa with those of the U.S. came during my conversation with Sithembele at the Langa school. Sithembele’s answer to why many students dropout of school struck me as foreign and unrelatable, yet after I wrote down “students dropout because of gang involvement,” I understood once again how wrong I had been in comparing the U.S. with South Africa. Gang involvement is no foreign concept, nor does it strictly create problems in lands far from the U.S. In many cities around the U.S. gang involvement has dangerous consequences on society, and even more specifically, the lives of children in school. Upon realizing how wrong it was of me to compare the U.S. to South Africa as a nation with no similar issues, I understood how similar we are as countries.
With a new understanding for the preconceived notions that I had formulated about South Africa, I have begun to question how I can prevent these misinformed ideas about others in the future. How much does the media play a role in my perception of other countries? How can one prevent generalization about another nation and their people?