On our second day in Johannesburg we visited Freedom Park, a memorial for the people who died in the anti-Apartheid liberation struggle. Our tour guide first tried to gauge how much we knew about South African history and find the gaps he had to fill in. Yet, when he asked questions to clarify what we knew, we were silent because we often did not know the answers. Some people were frustrated that he assumed we knew more than we did, but I felt like it was fair of him to assume that we had done research on the country we were going to be guests in. This instance captured a feeling that I had going into Duke Engage: we were not prepared enough. We had two pre-departure meetings, watched one documentary, and read one short history book. It was not enough.
While I read a couple of books about Mandela and read articles about modern politics in South Africa, I still felt like I could not answer basic questions about the country that I would be living in for 2 months. If the program is trying to avoid voluntourism, I think more education before we leave is absolutely necessary. The burden to self-educate should be on students, but it should also be on Duke Engage as a whole. I am grateful for the week in Johannesburg that we had to visit museums and hear from speakers for our own enrichment, but I also should have taken it upon myself to read and learn more before coming. Acknowledging that is one of the first steps in learning.
On the other hand, reading blocks of museum text and books can only prepare you to a certain extent. I could have read every book about land reform and still not have been prepared to go to court with my NGO, Ndifuna Ukwazi, and see the joy on people’s faces when their family member learns he will not be evicted. Going to a comedy show about race may have taught me more about the nuances of the relationship between Afrikaans and colored people than any textbook would have. Even physically walking down the street can teach you a lot about the pervasive poverty and inequality that exists in this city, rather than just reading about it.
Understanding context and being physically present are both equally important. I think living and learning day to day in South Africa will be a more rewarding and transformational experience if we recognize what we do not know and do not understand yet . We just must be able to admit what we don’t know, ask questions, and be open to learning.