17 years after the end of Apartheid, there are still very strong cultural barriers throughout South Africa. As a YAGM volunteer, you are immediately thrust into the middle of them all. During my time here, I have certainly participated in many “barrier breaking” activities, but most have come by way of simply being, not doing.
Being a YAGM volunteer means that you are not allowed any driving privileges. Sure, this can seem annoying at times and take away some of that independence we have cherished since teenage years as Americans. However, my rides in the taxis have produced some of more fruitful experiences during my time in South Africa. The taxis in South Africa are very different from the ones back in the States. Here, the taxis are really minibuses, or “15 seaters” as we commonly refer to them back home. Here, you squeeze in to capacity (and sometimes far over capacity!) and head to one common destination. You get off where you want, and you have to know the lingo and hand signs to get where you want to go. The taxis are quite cheap, and virtually travel everywhere and anywhere. Despite the common use and convenience, the taxis are rarely ridden by white South Africans. Often referred to as the “black taxis,” many white South Africans would rather walk than ride in them. So, whenever I step on to a taxi, the heads turn. People stare in amazement and for many I may be the first white person they’ve ever shared a taxi with. But shortly after aboard, I try to start a conversation with whoever is seated next to me. And the conversations have usually been wonderful, rich, fulfilling ones in which I learn a lot. I see a lot of people smile when they see me on the taxis, perhaps enjoying the fact that race is not the issue it once was. And all this by simply being.
My host family lives in a very safe, comfortable suburban neighborhood called Fauna. The streets are generally quiet and I spend a lot of time outside with my little host brother and sister. Down the street there is a little neighborhood shopping area, with a mini supermarket, a fish & chips place, a butchery, a dvd rental and other retail stores. So whenever I am feeling for a walk or need something quickly, I head down to the shops. As is often the case, my host brother or sister will accompany on my walk, (they do this because they usually get a chocolate or some ice cream out of it for keeping me company!) We tend to make these walks quite often. Each time we make the walk, we get stared at as if we had five heads and twenty arms. Unfortunately, the stares became so intense that my host brother and sister started to refuse to accompany me because they felt so uncomfortable. As unfair and rude as it is, it proves that there is still a stigma surrounding people of different races spending time together. I can only smile and laugh it off, for I know that our presence by just walking is making people think and contemplate the realities of the new South Africa. We are slowly showing people that it’s no big deal for a white person and black person to walk together. And all this by simply being.
Either for work or leisure, I spend a lot of time in downtown Bloemfontein. Covered with street vendors and markets selling spices, produce and other miscellaneous goods, downtown Bloemfontein has the hustle and bustle of a true African city. Bloem has character, and it’s something you need to experience firsthand to understand. And it’s because of this lively atmosphere that I sometimes just go for a stroll downtown. Now, when I am walking around downtown, I am the only white person in sight. I don’t get stared at as much as in other places, perhaps because it’s a city and people are more focused on their next destination or where the best avocado dealer is. But I certainly get the looks. I probably get the most astonished looks when I purchase something from the markets, or buy some of the food from the street vendors. There have been many times when I’ll bite into a fat cake (doughnut like bread ball sold almost everywhere,) freshly purchased on the street just to have people literally stop and stare at me. I’ve even had people tell me that they’ve never seen a white person eat something that they’ve just witnessed me happily devour. And despite hearing from many people how “dangerous and unsafe” downtown Bloemfontein is, I have never had a problem. Although I am just a drop in the ocean of people in downtown Bloem, I cannot help but think that my presence there triggers people’s thoughts about race, acceptance and life. And all this by simply being.
After spending over ten months in places and situations that are against the racial norm of the area, I see how powerful a presence can simply be. And then I think, how present have I been back home? How have I gone about my life in the cities and towns back in the U.S.? I was not unlike many white South Africans. But my hope is that after this year, I will continue to “simply be” amongst people unlike myself.
I’ve learned that you don’t have to do something tangible or big to make a difference. You simply have to be in ways you’ve never been.