Monthly Archives: April 2013

Just Look

I wrote this poem back in Grade 11 for a slam poetry assignment. I remember writing it over the course of a few days, which is relatively fast for my standards. I wrote it long before I decided to study at the University of Cape Town, and before I seriously started looking into Western views on Africa. But I knew already that something was wrong. I knew that detaching our First World lives from poverty and struggle wouldn’t solve the problem, it would just ease our guilt enough to get through the day. And I knew that wasn’t okay.

So, even though this is a kind of simplified version of some of my views, I still think it has something going for it. Enjoy.

 

Hello, my name is John
I used to live where the sun shone
But if you look now, Just Look
My life, my wife, my hope, they’re all gone
Thanks to a battle of wills of the powerful not-so-strong
That had nothing to do with my wife or my life
But it took everything
A rich man’s happiness comes at too high a price

I’m a human being, nothing more, nothing less
But now that that’s all gone –
Where’s my dignity

What makes you think, when push comes to shove
That you have the right to stand above
And watch while societies crash and burn
You think your status is one you earned?
We’re all human beings, nothing more, nothing less
And while we’re on the subject, please let me address
That the wealth and good cheer that you supposedly gained
Was given to you to not waste in vain

Just Look at the millions of people on their knees
Just Look
Whatever you do, don’t absorb this disease
Of apathetic ignorance that’s spread through the top
You sit and do nothing while economies flop
You say you’re against famine, poverty, war
But you don’t sacrifice anything to give to the poor
You say that every human has the right to life
To be fed, to be loved, to be protected from strife
Yes, you believe all these things, I don’t doubt it
The question is:
What are you going to do about it?

Just Look
The next time you see me on the corner of your giant TV screen
You see the pictures, the stories, and say
“Gosh, that’s obscene!”
But who cares?
Click, it’s gone
Hello, my name is John,
And my whole freakin’ world is gone

I’m a human being crushed under a bigger man’s show
So go ahead, big man, tell me I’m worth less than you

I’m a human being, nothing more, nothing less
I deserve dignity, I deserve respect from you
So don’t Just Look
Get up and do

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Stars, Stripes, and Weird Accents (Assignment)

A handful of students sit hunched over the computers in Leslie Social Southside Labs on a grey Wednesday morning, with a typical sampling of hoodies, phones, and squinting eyes. Two students buzz and clang in – one a stocky, smiley, tanned sort of male, the other a petite, Pinterest-cut-out girl. As they deposit their baggage and settle into their chosen seats, they are talking. They continue to talk throughout their stay. And to the aggravated shushers around me, apparently their voices carry a little too well.

But more than just being receivers of harsh glares, this pair gets their fair share of eye rolls.

Why?

“Like, I just don’t know.”

American Semester Study Abroad (SSA) students do not have a great reputation among University of Cape Town students. They’re often the easiest and least controversial targets to laugh at (not with). Their accent sticks out like a sore thumb, they seem to party from Monday to Sunday, and, as student Mosa Ramosa comments, “They stick together all the time and don’t want to make friends with anyone else. It’s kind of awkward. I mean, why come to another country if you’re not going to chill with other people from that country?”

I did some searching on the International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO) website to see if there really are American students everywhere you turn, or whether it just feels that way. In 2012, there were about 26,000 students enrolled at UCT. About 4,000 of them were international students doing their full degrees here, plus almost 1,000 SSA students. So, 19% of the student population is not South African, with over 100 countries represented on campus. One of UCT’s most valued policies is ‘internationalisation’ – bringing the world to Cape Town.

One of those SSA students is Hannah Mould from North Carolina. She came to Cape Town with her school’s exchange program, and is studying in the Humanities Faculty. She had 70 different options of where to study abroad.

“I chose Cape Town for several reasons,” she says. “I knew it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” Hannah also liked some of the specifics the city had to offer – teaching in English, summertime, and a very different culture (“aka, not Europe”).

Though she’s received some judgements for her accent, she’s really enjoyed her time in South Africa. And, locals may be surprised to know, she actually knew a bit about the continent before she arrived.

“Most people assume that Americans think Africa is just one big safari, but having been to Kenya, and knowing a lot of friends who have traveled/lived in Africa, I had a pretty good idea about what the city of Cape Town would be like.”

Lesley-Anne Jonathan works for the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) as a Residence Assistant, helping American students settle into Cape Town life for their semester here. She has seen some of the difficulties they face in adjusting to an entirely new culture, something many critical UCT students don’t even take into account.

Jonathan has watched most of their frustrations surface when it comes to service delivery – slow internet and building maintenance, for example – and how apathetic South Africans are when dealing with these issues. Learning to function in a different society is difficult for anyone, not least when locals view you as spoiled.

She says that the 28 students she works with have “learnt that the cultural background of South Africa is less to do with education and knowledge (as it is in America) but more to do with elderly wisdom and being taught how to do or not do things.”

But Jonathan also thinks having the SSA students around benefits South Africa. She finds the American students engage with their school material as a way of expanding their worldview and for interest, while local students simply study in order to get a job.

It’s easy to mock the American students. But, by going on an international exchange in the first place, it looks like they’re making an effort to break out of their cultural box. Some of them do it more effectively than others. Perhaps UCT students ought to embrace this opportunity to learn about a different culture and diversify our beloved campus.

Hannah puts it nicely: “One of the main things I love about studying here is the diversity at UCT, and in Cape Town as a whole. There are so many different cultures, accents, and types of people.” That will be the legacy of the University of Cape Town’s Semester Study Abroad program if we continue to welcome students from everywhere, even the United States of America.

Homeseek

The other morning I had an overwhelming craving for fall.

I was sitting in my Religion & Society class, it was mid-afternoon, I was tired and bored, and I wanted it to be autumn.

It was all there in my mind – the stunning warm colours, contrasted with the cool, crisp morning air; the smell of leaves and pumpkins and hay; the grey skies and brown coats and purple scarves and auburn hair blowing in the wind. The desire was so intense I could taste the breeze and put my hands in my pockets for warmth.

But then the sun was shining outside, and I realised I’m not in Canada anymore, and I sighed.

There is an autumn-type season here in Cape Town. The ivy leaves on the University of Cape Town’s buildings turn red and gold and fall, the air turns colder, and people start dressing in greys and blacks and blues. And there is winter (another thing you should know about Africa). It’s cold and miserable. There’s lots of precipitation (albeit rain). People lose hope. Pretty similar to the Canadian winters I grew up with.

Sure, it freaks me out whenever my brain tries to relate the month to the season. When I think fall, I think Hallowe’en, so the fact that leaves are falling in May is just wrong to me.

And this led me to a juicy moment of self-reflection. [Meanwhile, I’m still in a class I pay to take…]

The four seasons of the Northern Hemisphere aren’t just a way my life can be divided, but an entire way of seeing the world. I lived life in those seasons. They’re the documents, the diary of how I grew up, and I don’t think I’ll ever quite shake that format for organising my experiences.

Then I got to wondering if this means that I’ll never feel comfortable here. Will I never fit into Africa?

But maybe my story is a thread, weaving left and right, and maybe Africa’s story is a blanket of many threads, and maybe her story and mine will interweave and intersect at certain points, but I will never fully be woven into her seams. I will learn from Africa, and possibly she will learn from me, and that will be something.

Perhaps this will never be home for me. But I don’t think Canada will ever be the fullness of home for me either.

Home is where I am the most myself.

I am the most myself when I’m searching for home: behind me, before me, around me.

I am home.