Over the past six weeks, I’ve grown comfortable with many aspects of South Africa that initially made me feel out of place. The slight and more drastic cultural differences can be challenging for any foreigner to get used to. Coming from America where nationalism is strong and it’s often “my way or the highway,” I had to consciously open my mind from day one and be welcoming of change. At this point, many of the challenges that demanded my attention towards the beginning have become seemingly insignificant. Whether it be looking left when I cross the street or sitting in the front seat of an Uber even when I’m the only passenger, previous absurdities finally feel normal.
Many things about living in Cape Town have become easy. Effortless even. I know the city well but there is still one fear that I haven’t been able to shake. Walking home from anywhere in the City Center I know exactly where to go. In broad daylight on the busy streets of the Central Business District, I know I should enjoy my walk to and from work. The town is lively, the shops are cute, and many of the people we pass on the way are well-dressed and interesting. Everything about the walk is refreshing. Everything other than the fact that I never feel completely safe.
It’s true that the moment I speak my American accent is enough to turn heads. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the reactions that occur when I’m completely silent and undistinguishable that ruin what should be an enjoyable experience. The looks I get from men on the streets have been enough to send chills down my spine. The honking and cat calling out of cars passing by are annoying but I can shake that off relatively easily. Those are singular moments that pass by quickly, at several kilometers per hour. To walk by someone who stops in their tracks or turns to stare and comment inappropriately is something entirely different. Time stops and everything seems to move in slow motion.
Most of the time the words are just words, but you never truly know the motivation behind them. Several times I’ve been grabbed by the arm while walking down a busy street in the daytime. Once while walking in a group of four a man stepped off from leaning against his car to reach into our group and grab my arm. At this point I knew he probably wouldn’t hurt me with everyone around but that didn’t make the experience any less scary.
After so many weeks you would think this type of occurrence wouldn’t affect me as much. I certainly thought that as I learned to walk quickly, not smile or make eye contact with anyone I would feel less threatened. To my surprise, this hasn’t been the case. Just last week my roommate and I walked passed a group of men sitting on the steps outside a shop. I felt their eyes on me and did my best to ignore it as I always do. Once we passed she turned to me laughing and said “Oh my God. They were looking at you like a piece of meat.” I found humor in the analogy and wanted to laugh it off with her but all I could manage was a dry chuckle. Even after six weeks it still made my skin crawl. In that moment I realized this was something I would never get used to.
I love Cape Town and often entertain the idea of moving here one day. I can see myself being very happy, but then I remember how much I value my independence. I realize how much I’ve taken it for granted. I’ve very rarely felt afraid to go anywhere alone back home. I hardly think of my safety and look over my shoulder every 3 seconds as I walk down the street like I do here. In both countries I’m a woman but here that means something very different. It means I feel afraid to walk anywhere without a man. Even then I know that only slightly improves my chances of being targeted.
I hate that feeling of dependence. I hate feeling like I need anyone walking at my side to be shown even the slightest bit of respect. As my trip nears its end, I resent the patriarchy more each day. With every stare and comment I become more frustrated with men for disenchanting me with a place I’ve grown to love.