South Africa 1997.
At the tender age of 20 I had the extraordinary privilege of studying in Durban, South Africa for 4 months. Each day of that study abroad created a memory that is still shaping my life. South Africa is an amazing, beautiful, challenging country with a fascinating history. In 1997, 20 years ago, it was just emerging from its brutal apartheid era. The yellow tanks that had previously terrorized black and brown citizens were still parked in government lots, weeds growing around their giant metal frames.
I've been thinking a lot about my time in South Africa, now that we are beginning our own terrifying racist and isolationist government era. One moment in particular keeps coming to mind, and perhaps it will offer you a portion of the solace and hope that it is giving to me.
Early in our stay we (the 15 other young college students I was traveling with) visited a women's help center to learn about the challenges facing families in South Africa. The center was located in a beautiful (formally all-white) sunny suburb, with lush tall trees and small houses set back from wide avenues. We sat in a small gray conference room and listened to statistics about the HIV/AIDS epidemic (at its height in the 90's), maternal health, rape, child neglect and homelessness, and violence in families. There was no good news. There was bad news, and there was worse news.
Much like the news this week.
After hours of hearing all of this heartbreaking information, our group stumbled back into the sunshine for our lunch break. The glare of the blue sky hurt our eyes, so newly red from crying over numbers of women raped each year. We stood on the sidewalk, hardly able to walk in one direction, let alone decide something so meaningless as what to have for lunch. What should we do? Go home? Barricade ourselves into our dorm rooms? We thought that coming to South Africa was the stupidest thing we had ever done. We were terrified and horrified, and astonished that the sun could still be shining.
Then from across the street a group of Black women greeted us. From their uniforms (everyone in South Africa wore a uniform), we guessed they were maids, on their own lunch break or running an errand together. They guessed from our sloppy jeans and sneakers and bewildered expressions that we were American students. The women came up to us, smiling wide as the sun and holding their arms out to us, laughing joyfully.
"Welcome to South Africa! Welcome to South Africa! The beautiful country!"
They seemed to think that coming to South Africa was the smartest, best thing we could do. They embraced us with their smiles and then moved on down the street.
I remember staring after then, wondering... How? How could they love their country so? I'm sure they also knew the rape statistics and the rate of AIDS all too well. They had just voted for the first time just a few years before. How are they smiling?
It took me many more weeks to understand what I had glimpsed that day. These women loved their country. They knew its flaws and its hardships very well, and they CHOOSE to smile in the face of them.
You can join the terror and succumb to the horror, or you can shine the sun out of your face and say, I LOVE my country.
I love my country, and all the people in it. I will smile like the sun in the face of the terrible things our government is doing to us, because we are worth fighting for.
Welcome to America! A beautiful, complicated country.