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“Lose yourself.”

That’s what my best friend’s mom said to me before leaving for South Africa. I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t quoting Eminem. It’s only been a week, but I think I’m getting closer to figuring out what she meant when saying goodbye.

I arrived in Johannesburg on Saturday morning and met 12 stranger-acquaintances to begin a program focused on human rights and social justice in post-apartheid South Africa. I didn’t have any specifics for what my upcoming ‘immersive’ first week would look like, but it was spent grappling with the nation’s history, wandering through museums, talking to a history professor from University of Witwatersrand, visiting the Alexandra township, and having some critical group reflections… all to prepare us with necessary context to begin internships in Cape Town next week.

But I’ll brutally admit, it was Wednesday night— and I already “lost myself” to my emotions. I’m characteristically stoic and it’s out of nature for me to cry. Yet in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve spent the past 7 days lost.

I was lost at dinner on the first night, hungrily expecting a quick meal but only receiving forced patience and a 3 hour conversation in return (and some mid-meal dancing too).

I was lost trying to find the gym at 6:30 am and was lost when I heard South Africa’s native tongue from my Uber driver on the way home.

I was lost trying to balance our new group dynamics, and figure out where my voice fits in the mix.

I was lost on Monday when we visited the Voortrekker monument, and confused by the celebration of the white colonizer’s ‘Great Trek,’ when every other narrative told me its’ past as shameful otherwise.

I was lost when I heard the word “Whitey” on Tuesday in Alexandra, and struggled to understand the distance between myself and the black man who shouted the word at me.

I was lost when we wandered through the prisons at Constitutional Hill, and couldn’t comprehend how someone’s last name could determine their ration of food.

And I was lost trying to grasp the weight behind our tour guide, Calvin’s story, and his time spent as a political prisoner post apartheid, and barely fathomed his humility when describing 14 days on hunger strike.

So yeah, I’ve been categorically lost this week. I tried to understand South Africa’s unsettling past and experience its’ uncomfortable present, but I’m unsure how to navigate my own position and purpose here— as a privileged, white, 20 year old American female.

I’ve struggled to connect myself to these stories and admittedly spent most of my time in Johannesburg absorbing South Africa… at an objective distance. The trips to museums, lectures by professor Noor Nieftagodien, and even our visit to the poorest township in the city have been extremely enlightening, but nothing penetrated me beneath the surface.

Until Wednesday night, and I felt like my emotions were hijacked.

I sat in our guesthouse after watching the documentary, Miners Shot Down, with tears unforgivingly falling from my face and felt an odd release from the numbness I’d felt before. The film covers the Marikana Massacre, where 44 workers were shot and killed by police after protesting for a higher wage in 2012 and many strikers face life in prison today.

I don’t know how to describe the film using more descriptive words because it was really the visual context that caused me to cry. I watched police officers approach slain protesters and thought they were confirming my naive beliefs about the goodness of human nature. But instead, I watched the police that ruthlessly fired guns moments before, walk over and push lifeless bodies over with their weapons.

I was disgusted by the government’s disillusionment, and how they tribalized themselves to the point of total objectification for the miners. They saw the protesters for a symbol they represented, the color of their skin, and showed no sign of recognizing their most basic human needs. There was no compromise, no forgiveness, and leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa (current ANC President), spoke about the massacre without any sign of remorse.

I wasn’t at a place to articulate analytical points once the movie ended. I was just hit with a wave of emotions that came from genuine heartbreak and more-so, embarrassment from my nativity. But I finally felt the gravity of apartheid laws and discrimination in a way that broke through to me beyond just another history lesson. I was faced with my immature and ignorant look on the world and just felt stupid for thinking the police would behave any differently.

It’s only been a week in Johannesburg, and maybe the insurgence of tears came from jet lag, but I think I’m beginning to slowly open my tired eyes to South Africa’s deeply imbued sense of injustice.

However, this country is a contradiction. It’s a painful and unfair place, but South Africa is simultaneously beautiful and full of hope. It could’ve been the artist on the street in Soweto, who took the time to describe every painstakingly intricate detail on his mural related to freedom, or the political ‘wokeness’ of the vendors trying to sell me keychains… but I’m dumbfounded by their parallel sense of pride and nationalism. South Africa is a country ignited by a sense of purpose and dignity in a way I’ve never experienced back home… a place where apathy is far more familiar.

I unintentionally ‘lost myself’ this week. Maybe not for all of it, and I fell asleep in the movie we watched today (oops), but I lost myself in so many stories fighting for freedom. I’m usually overly introspective, but realize my internal dialogue over the past 7 days has been less about my complaints or fatigue, insecurity or fear… and more focused on stories and a group outside of myself.

I really liked getting lost in a new narrative.

I liked quieting the voice inside my head that’s thinking about how tired, or hungry, or upset that I still can’t run is, and tuning into Nelson Mandela’s story a bit louder. I liked listening to other students talk at dinner and hearing about their families, instead of dwelling on how much I miss my own. I liked staying up until 3 am and getting to know my roommate, rather than quieting the conversation because I had gym plans in the morning (and ending up snoozing my alarm instead).

Getting lost in all of this was all okay though. “Losing myself” doesn’t mean I’m supposed to lose ‘me.’ My best friend’s mom didn’t tell me to lose my ‘personality,’ or values, or my intrinsic sense of ‘self’ (and I still ended up going later that day, if you’re reading this Coach Riley). I think her mom gave me the advice so I could let go of my own rigidity or thoughts to experience this trip more fully. I “lost myself” in stories of humility, justice and unbelievable courage, and realize how inconsequential my smaller thoughts can be. I spent time wrestling with life’s bigger questions of justice and equality, trying my best to engage with a new group of friends, and have been pretty damn happy through it all — and full of purpose.

Ubuntu’ is a Zulu term in South Africa meaning “humanity” (and not just the name for a Duke SLG). It’s the idea that “a person is a person through other people.”

Everywhere I turn, South Africa seems to embody this term, and prioritize needs of others over their own self interest. The stories I heard and people I met are undoubtedly selfless and live(d) with so much purpose, and I think it’s because they’re led by a cause outside of themselves. This feels incomparable to the way we pursue purpose back home and think America might emphasize ‘self reliance’ or ‘self help’ too much. We’re so individualistically driven, told to find our own passion, or go see a therapist when we have a problem… but aren’t usually advised to engage with the community already around us.

I don’t know what purpose I’d be willing to die for (other than accidentally eating a tree nut and looking for an EpiPen), but if this week has taught me anything, it’s to lose myself and my ego a little bit more. I’m guilty of prioritizing my time spent running, reading, writing (this), most currently, trying to teach myself the ukulele, over doing things that don’t necessarily benefit me. But I think I need to reevaluate my logic.

I’m reminded by the stories from this past week that my best self isn’t realized until I am in the company of others. I think maybe, I should let go of holding onto my alone time, my internal dialogue or own needs so tightly, and trade it for stepping outside myself, towards the people around me more.

Nelson Mandela was asked by Larry King in an interview in 2000, “Where is your ego?”

Mandela responded and said, “No, the ego lies in the fact that I share it with men and women, some of whom are more capable than me. That is my ego.”

I’ve got a loooong way to go from there, but Alicia’s mom’s advice stuck with me. I lost myself in other people’s stories this week, and spent some time trying to walk in their shoes. I’m not black, a minority or without education. I’m not underprivileged and I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism or the ongoing ‘economic apartheid.’ But I’m adjusting to a whole new set of friends for an 8 week sleepover, and getting ready to work with even more unfamiliar faces next week at SACTWU.

New shoes are always a little uncomfortable at first, but I’m getting pretty sick of my own (and my Birks just ripped anyways). 



Graffiti artist Senzo Nhlapo, wants to “change townships with his art.” He told me the woman represents Winnie Mandela and the white part of the eyes represent unity.