Landing in Jozi, we were met by Calvin Johannes and his wife Bernadine. It all felt like a scene out of a movie; I had never had anyone meet me with a sign at the airport before. As we drove away from the airport, the initial feeling of eminence evolved slowly into a sense of belonging. Driving through the streets of Johannesburg, I felt as though I had been transported back to Jamaica. The similarities were frightening.
Calvin likened driving through the city center to driving through the middle of an African jungle. Instead of giraffes munching on high leaves were high rise buildings looming over the watering holes of dark, dreary streets filled with dirt and debris. I saw Joburgers walk around the debris and trash almost as though it didn’t exist. A kick of a plastic bag, a step over an orange peel and a hop past a KFC box. I watched people make their way through the city and I was transported to Kingston, Jamaica where bodies move gracefully through hustle and bustle and the degradation of life in the city center. A fruit-peddler approached and tapped our car window in anger because Calvin was driving too slowly. I believe he was driving diplomatically for my sake, not knowing that I am Jamaican and that I am used to driving in cities like Johannesburg.
Everything about the drive took me back to Jamaica but things grew more complicated as the day progressed. I was quickly put in my place as an outsider when I over-heard snippets of Zulu and Afrikaans conversations. How is it that this place feels so familiar and so alienating all at once? Joburg resembles Jamaica – a place I call my own – but it also feels like a place I don’t belong in. These questions made me feel things I was not prepared to wrestle with on this trip.
There are obvious pluses to being in South Africa: the Hadeda birds waking me at 6AM, the light streaming through the trees outside my door and the peacefulness in the air, so far removed from the hustle and bustle of American life. Yet something much more complicated has colored my experience of this first week. I did not expect to be analyzing and exploring my identity within days of arriving on this new continent. But I am emboldened by how comfortable South Africans are with taboo topics no matter how deep. I’m looking forward to exploring the discomfort, not only within myself but with my cohort as well.