During my junior year of high school, I boarded a plane to Johannesburg with 15 other kids in my Ecology science class for a two-week backpacking trip throughout the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and Drakensberg Mountains. In theory, the trip sounded like a once in a lifetime experience and something I should have been excited about. In reality, I had spent two months leading up to the trip thinking of every possible excuse not to go. The actual experience, when it came to pass, was as unbelievable and once-in-a-lifetime as everyone had told me it would be. So much so that upon my return, I spent far too much time thinking of any possible way to get myself back to South Africa.
So of course, when I read about DukeEngage Cape Town, it seemed like the opportunity I had been looking for, to go back to South Africa. Yet when the opportunity finally presented itself, I felt doubtful again. As I sat at the gate to board the plane, all I could think of was an increasingly long list of reasons as to why I shouldn’t go on the trip.
In theory, the opportunity to spend two months in South Africa sounded like something to look forward to. When talking about summer plans I had been told consistently by friends and family that the opportunity to gain work experience in Cape Town was “right up my alley.” My mom reminded me how much I loved the time I spent in South Africa the first time around. My brother told me he would do anything to trade places and have my summer rather than his own. Why then could I not shake the feeling that I should not go?
Two weeks later, here I am in South Africa and the only way I can describe my relationship with this trip so far is complicated. It is nothing like the list of fears I had when arriving at the airport. I have become close with people I most likely would not have met. I treasure the bonds we have solidified in our long conversations over Rooibos tea each night. It is exciting to learn how to navigate Cape Town and to start working. But I have also spent hours debating the ethics of the work I’m doing, why I am doing it in the first place, and whether there will be a lasting impact when I get back to Duke. My experience of South Africa this time around is beyond foreign – an unknown land of complex human relationships, and years of tension intertwined. It is uncomfortable.
However, I have come to realize that perhaps it’s good for me to learn in a space of discomfort. I expected to arrive in South Africa and have it feel familiar. I was excited to talk about my time spent here and revisit what I loved about the country. Here I am now with a skewed sense of time, feeling as if I was in Johannesburg a month ago when in reality it was last week.