What South Africa Taught Me

Ashley Nash, Contributing Writer

Los Angeles Sentinel — September 18, 2014

Bo-Kaap, known as a historical hub of Cape Malay culture.

“I never knew what to expect before coming, but I know now that I couldn’t have ever fathomed what this trip gave me: a stronger love for people, culture, history and freedom.”

In a stuffy, dimly lit 737, I sat towards the back in an aisle seat. I watched the on-screen graphic of our flight as it flashed across the TV screen repeatedly. We would finally be in Cape Town after 21 hours of flying. I anticipated the opportunity of experiencing the beauty, people, culture and language of the land. Anxious to arrive, I could barely stay seated even as the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign flashed overhead. Within moments, I heard the pilot tap the intercom: “Alright folks, we are about 15 minutes from landing. Please be sure to keep your seatbelt on until the sign is no longer lit. Prepare for landing.” He repeated the advisory; this time in Afrikaans–the Dutch-sounding language my professor briefed us about a few weeks before. As the plane descended, sunlight beamed through the windows, illuminating the plane and the sky. City streets and a mountainous skyline welcomed my eyes as the last wheel bounced along the runway. Like the dissension, my anxiety disappeared as excitement rushed throughout my body. I was finally in the Motherland.

Hoedspruit Safari Giraffes

I stretched and gathered my things as I made my way towards the terminal to meet fellow classmates. Together, we waited for the last few to exit the plane as we let the slow, comforting pace of the airport sink in. This was no LAX, and we basked in that. After gathering checked luggage, we met our assigned driver and headed to the organization’s office. Following the orientation, we settled into our hotels and started our adventure. Over the next nine weeks, we would become a part of Cape Town as tourists and journalists with our ears to the ground. My first opportunity to engage with the community would be through what my manager called “vox pops”. While I knew that taking on this project would mean learning some keywords in several languages, I was almost sure I would never guess the meaning of this one. After a co-worker shared the simple definition, I compared the task to recording an MOS: “on-the-street” style interviews that we’d all been assigned in our first semester at USC. However, this time around the topic was e-cigarettes being used inside of restaurants.

Green Market Square

After a few seconds of self-coaching, I started approaching different locals that were moving throughout the business district. Old, young, male female, Black, White, Coloured and Indian, you name it, I searched for that perspective. Yet, the diversity I valued and attempted to include was also boggling my mind. Prior to arriving in Cape Town, we met a few times with the professor that would lead the trip. We were also briefed on the differences and similarities between Coloureds and Blacks and warned to know the difference. Seemed like the ‘Light Skin vs. Dark Skin drama that continues to plague the African-American community today, but I knew it wasn’t comparable. Coloureds, typically of Malaysian, European, African and Indian heritage, were a totally different race classification than Blacks of the Zulu, Sutu or Xhosa clans. It was an adjustment to say the least. Nevertheless, I put on a smile, conducted unbiased analysis and became one with my tablet, recorder and camera.

Hoedspruit Countryside

Inside and outside of the work place was an array of images: beauty, struggle, triumph, diversity, tradition — I always felt compelled and inspired to capture the moment. This year marked ’20 Years of Democracy’ in South Africa. Many events and protests were often compared to the conditions of Apartheid rule and the associated uprisings in regards to whether people of ethnic backgrounds were really free at all. A similar battle inundated the community, questioning the character of Capetonians everywhere. Since 2008, xenophobic attacks were happening throughout the city. Zimbabweans, Congolese and other neighboring Africans were traveling to the Cape for work and refuge from poor living conditions and war in their native countries. While some locals were active in assisting or unbothered by their arrival, others became violent. A classmate of mine was interning at an organization that supported refugees with citizenship, employment, emotional relief, and other services. In commemoration of World Refugee Day, June 20, I was assigned to produce a profile. For two days, I shadowed interns, lawyers, executive assistants and refugees, documenting their encounters and responsibilities. As many of the employees were refugees themselves, the clientele felt comfortable in sharing their stories… This situation also reminded me of what America; particularly California is facing now with immigration. While each personal account shared was unique, all of my related memories and what I was recording pointed to one issue: humanitarianism.

Hoedspruit Sunset

Congruently, in our second to last week, our group took a trip to the Eastern Cape. For six hours, we feasted our eyes on gorgeous countryside until we arrived at our first stop. Immediately, we dived into tours and activities, learning the ways of the village people. We learned the history of the parishes and dined with the community. There was no time or use for the devices and technology that we clung to for the last eight weeks. Finally, we could truly become one with Mama Africa. From improvising dining settings and cracking corn with stones to witnessing the beautiful animals while on safari, we were getting a taste of what it meant to use and adore what Mother Earth gave us. In celebration of South Africa’s rich history, we also visited the Steve Biko museum and walked through the village that the honorable Nelson Mandela called home. Six days passed as we indulged in the culture and soaked up the scenery. Our last week of work lied ahead and we began to realize how much Cape Town had become a part of us.

Muizenberg Beach

Everything we’d learned thus far from celebratory phrases in Afrikaans and ‘welcome’ in Xhosa, to how to cross the street (look both ways and run), all of these beautiful lessons flashed throughout our minds as we finished up the last of our internships. As our encounters ran throughout my imagination, the South African National Anthem matched each moment. The first verse was the loudest: ‘Nkosi sikelel Afrika!’ God bless Africa! I became overwhelmed with a renewed appreciation. I would miss my coworkers and the experiences I shared with my fellow Trojans. I never knew what to expect before coming, but I know now that I couldn’t have ever fathomed what this trip gave me: a stronger love for people, culture, history and freedom. Enkosi, Mama Afrika! Dankie! Thank you.

Mural of South African Leaders, Robben Island

All Photos by Ashley Nash