By msunada on Feb 15, 2010 in Uncategorized
My semester in South Africa was one of the hardest and most exciting times of my life. I learned so much, but some of the most valuable lessons I learned came from difficult experiences. While many students who have studied abroad talk about their experience as an enjoyable and fun semester, my semester abroad was difficult, intense, interesting, trying, and not always fun. While I had many great times traveling, laughing with friends, and bungee jumping off bridges, much of my semester was difficult. I struggled to adjust to the inefficiency and bureaucracy of the school, I missed healthy food, and of course all the normal pains of missing home, family and friends. The most difficult things to live with were the ever-present reminders of apartheid. I was warned that I should expect to be surprised at the lingering racism, but I never imagined that it would be so severe or that it would be so stressful to me. I found the environment of everyday life on campus and in the town to be hostile and stressful because of the evident racism and hatred between people. One of the hardest things to deal with were the children on the street. Young children and children that looked younger than their real ages due to malnutrition haunt the streets of South Africa. They wait outside grocery stores and restaurants, asking only for ‘please some food, sisi, please some bread?’ We are sternly warned not to give money or food to these children, as it will probably due more harm than good. Some children sell food for money to buy drugs or alcohol, others will have food or money stolen from them. We are told that if we feel so inclined we should instead donate to local charities. While I completely agree with this advice, nothing is harder than walking by a young hungry child while you have a full stomach and food in your bag.
Although there was a lot that was difficult about my semester abroad, I would never trade my experience, as the difficulty is what ultimately helped me grow and made my experience meaningful. Going to a country whose problems are not hidden below the surface forces one to confront these problems head on and act. It is easy as college students to say we believe in social justice, but it is more difficult to speak out in class and name the racism you see. It is easy to say that you believe in serving your community, but it is more difficult to hunt down the center of community service and get involved. It is exactly these accomplishments that made study abroad amazing for me. I had the opportunity to volunteer in the local township with AIDS affected children. The children my friends and I worked with had lost one or both parents due to AIDS. We came once a week on Friday afternoons to provide the children with afternoon art projects. We wanted the children to have a fun, bright spot in their difficult lives and to see that their community cared about them. While we felt that we did make a difference, that we did make these children smile and laugh, the experience was also trying because we also felt just how little we could do. We could not provide them all with shoes and clothes, we could not feed them, we could not bring Pepe’s parents back.
My experiences volunteering at Raglan Road’s Multipurpose Center capture so much of my experience. They capture the joy we found and created, the possibilities for a better future for these children than a shack house in a neglected township. But they also capture their plight, their inadequate shoes, their only clothes, and our inability to offer more than an afternoon of rocket making. I will never regret my study abroad experience. I made great friends, had incredible experiences, learned so much about myself, and saw and did not deny huge nearly unsolvable problems.